PERMANENT RECORDS: HOPELANDIC
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
35. SIGUR RÓS - TAKK... (2005)
Personnel: Jón Þór (Jónsi) Birgisson, vocals & guitars; Kjartan (Kjarri) Sveinsson, keyboards; Orri Páll Dýrason; drums; Georg (Goggi) Holm, bass
Producer: Sigur Rós & Ken Thomas/ Label: Geffen
Writing about Sigur Rós is a strange task. I'm at a loss for how exactly to approach it. Sure, I have my hook. I'm starting this now on a Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the band is due to play the Arlene Schnitzer here in Portland, OR, and I know that I will finish this up sometime tomorrow, with the idea of seeing how Takk... may have transformed itself in my mind once I've witnessed the Sigur Rós concert experience.
But how do I write about the music itself?
It can't really be song-based. While Sigur Rós does write songs, I can't tell you the name of a single one of them. There are no hit singles, and with all the lyrics sung in Icelandic, there is no poetic content for me to analyze. In reality, Takk... is the first of their albums to even be in a language other humans speak. Much of their previous records also featured their made-up language, Hopelandic--but to my self-absorbed western ears, it's all the same.
Every track is also the same to those ears. Well, not exactly the same, as I can tell the music has shifted, as it just has in my playback in the background, going from the wail and strum of the first track on the disc to the piano marching of the second, the high-pitched voice giving over to a deeper, breathier voice. It's that the songs flow so seamlessly one to the next that I don't sliver them up in my brain, I listen to the album as if it were all water in the same ocean, one wave just a recurrence of that which has gone before. They rise and crest and crash in different places, but it's one ocean, relaxing in its rhythm, enveloping the individual with its seemingly endless expanse, and as I swallow and drown, the gulp that first splashes into my lungs might as well be the exact same liquid that stifles my final breath.
And other dramatic metaphors like that.
For that reason, I find that Sigur Rós is not a band I put on lightly. I don't have them playing when I do dishes, nor when I sit down to write. If done for the latter, the CD is usually over before I even really had a chance to acknowledge that it's on, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, because that means I hopefully lost myself in whatever fictional world I was trying to explore; yet, when I write, I also like my brain to engage with outside stimuli. Believe it or not, I like the influence of what is going on around me. Perhaps Sigur Rós does that in their own way--no perhaps, they most assuredly do--but it's not my preferred way.
My most common times for choosing to play Takk..., which would win out lately because it's the most recent, are either when I am going to bed or when I am wandering through the city at night.
I have a special relationship with my sleepytime records. The act of going to sleep is actually somewhat akin to writing for me: I have to check out of one reality and enter another. Perhaps that's why I have a knack for being able to fall asleep anywhere, just like how words pour out of me when sitting in a coffee shop and a bar. My surroundings drop away, and I become disengaged, just as I become re-engaged with something else. If I lay in bed in silence, my brain will create noise for me. I'll worry about money or what someone said to me earlier or think about what I will be writing or was just writing. If I play music in the background, I start to listen to that, stop thinking, and drift. Usually, the choices are quieter affairs, things that are easy to listen to. More ambient works can be favored, things like Moby's Underwater or a Brian Eno CD. These blankets of sound, these ocean waves, they bury me, smother me, in slumber.
In those late-night listening sessions, Takk... relaxes me as it dismantles life. It removes everything else and becomes my only sensation. In the other listening category, in my sessions with the outside world, it does the opposite: it imbues the landscape around me with a new sense of vitality.
Back when I wrote about One Dove in the very first entry of this series, I compared their music to walking around at 3 a.m., a metaphor that I did not disclose had come to me under those exact circumstances, so limited is my imagination at times. I love to wander the streets with my headphones in, the volume jacked up as high as it can go, and separate myself from the world, viewing it from an almost dream-like state, floating through my city as if some specter. One of my favorite Pulp lyrics is from "Monday Morning": "Why live in the world when you can live in your head?" This is what I am doing. I plug up my ears so the soundtrack is all under my control, so people can talk to me and honk their horns and I hear nothing. Shapes change, moods alter, my head begins to spin with images and ideas.
Sigur Rós' music is ideal for this kind of activity. Their songs have a lot of forward momentum, starting someplace small and building, hitting multiple crescendos across each track. As the cacophony of drums and piano and the otherworldly whistle of voice come to their full climax, I feel that everything around me is going to shake and shatter and fall to the ground, opening up my vision of the sky so that when it drops back down again, to the quiet tickling of noise, I will see nothing but stars and space and the universe beyond.
In simple terms, listening to Sigur Rós is a personal experience. It's me alone with me. So, what happens when I leave my head and rejoin the rest of humanity?
First, there are preconceived notions. To start, I expect a lot of people on stage. It's hard for me to believe that four people on their own can do all of this. I was expecting this to be like a Godspeed You Black Emperor! show where special arrangements would have to be made to fit everyone onstage. Godspeed seems like an apt band to compare Sigur Rós to when it comes down to expectations, because Godspeed deals in a similar kind of ambient noise, another case where I wasn't sure how it would translate live. When I saw them, however, it was in a club that wasn't very full--I forget who, but some other hipster band was in town that night that somehow trumped the Black Emperor!--and I actually lay down on the floor and closed my eyes and it was almost like I was back home and in bed for the duration.
There was no chance of being in a similar situation at the Schnitz, a seated venue that also hosts symphonies when rock bands aren't in need of a theatre their size. It is, however, a fancy place, with chandeliers and walls decorated with sculpted boxes from grander days. My friends and I had pretty decent seats on the floor, though slightly cramped and a little hot. During the opening band's set, I was particularly worried about how much movement would be going on around me. Other people shuffling in and out of their seats can be an awful distraction.
These fears started to fade as Sigur Rós took the stage. Appearing behind a veil of gauze, they performed their first song from that same area of abstraction as private listening. There was distance between us, they weren't yet made flesh--they were instead silhouettes on a screen, enlarged shadows on a wall. As the song ended and the veil lifted, the symbolism was complete. The listeners were now being let into the music, its inner parts would be exposed. It was that opening up again, exposing the sky, but this time more through external than internal means.
Just as I suspected, in the live arena, Sigur Rós do expand with a string section, but the bulk of the music is made very conventionally: guitar, drums, bass, piano. Birgisson is the most surprising element. I would have never guessed that such alien sounds would come out of such a skinny little man. All the while, he almost absent-mindedly draws a bow back and forth across his guitar strings, whipping up the wind that will be the tornado.
There were attempts to bring the music to life visually, through lights and rear projection. Thankfully, it wasn't overdone, as it wasn't totally necessary. My favorite effect was a set of three small lights that were tuned to the xylophone, rising and falling in brightness with the sound of the keys. Truthfully, though, the best effects were the unintentional ones, like when I looked to me left and saw Birgisson's shadow cast over the wall, taking on the shape of the ornaments there, distorted to heights normally achieved by mythological giants.
Was I lost in the music, though? Not if I was looking at light bulbs and shadows and Sveinsson smiling and stamping his feet. Not if I was noticing technicians sneaking around the stage and adjusting hidden objects and if I was waiting to see if a band member would leave his or her post and go to another instrument I couldn't identify to make a sound I'd never heard. My thoughts weren't ebbing away, but shooting around my brain and finding new elements to obsess on. "Will that check come tomorrow?" "When will I be able to finish my reviews?" "I wonder if I can work in a grocery trip?" My God! It was just like trying to fall asleep without music!
I closed my eyes and let myself float and found it was easier to submerge than I would have guessed, the theatre was almost completely dark. My thoughts dropped back, and it was just the music. It was loud and large and as lovely as I knew it to be, but it was more open, the ceiling had come off, I was traveling down a highway standing up in a convertible and feeling the wind. It wasn't as intimate, but it was more sensory. I could feel the thud of the drums in my chest, I could open my eyes and catch a glimpse of it being made, like coming up for air, taking a quick breath before going back down into the metaphor soup. It was more work, sure, I had to build the walls to be lulled, but it was worth it, because when the crash and cacophony came, it was huge, the tornado Birgisson was swirling was knocking me around.
I'll admit, I couldn't tell you what songs off of Takk... were actually played, if any. Like on record, it didn't matter where the pauses were. You start at one place and you keep traveling until you get to another. In this case, there was a three song encore, and for once, an encore was something spectacular, the best saved for last. Here Sigur Rós was at their most thunderous, as if invoking something, to raise something up. Us, perhaps?
Cued by a big guitar sound, the veil was lowered again, Sigur Rós returned to their abstract images to play out the final song, the distance created again. I was expelled. I was sent back to my private experience, discovering that I had been part of a community as we all reacted as one and stood, applauded, and cheered. Different, but the same--both listeners and listening. We were together all along.
Was my thinking about Takk... changed? To a degree. Listening to it now, I see pictures in my head of last night. I see the projection of a drummer attacking his skins. I see lights. I feel the rush. I still have no greater revelations about Sigur Rós. I can't explain to you how the songs are put together, I can't talk of orchestral movements or structure, I still don't understand the lyrics. Yet, maybe I do understand more about it's transformative power, that it's as mercurial as I need it to be, that it can bend to the situation, and can be both private and public--though always mine. In that final moment, when myself and rest of the audience spontaneously realized we were there in the same pool together, maybe it was an object lesson that the music connects us whether we know it or not. When I am alone with my headphones and I think I am lost to the rest of the world, maybe I am really jacked in, the music being the common thread that goes from me to you to him to her and on and on. Like a Sigur Rós album, each song rolling into the next, the names unimportant, each person another wave on the same continuous ocean.
Sure, chances are I won't believe this tomorrow when the warm fuzzy glow of the experience and the last vestiges of the post-concert whisky work their way out of system, but that's for tomorrow to sort out, isn't it?
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Current Soundtrack: Sigur Rós, Von
Current Mood: cheerful
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich