I don’t know what the last album I bought on vinyl was (I mean the last album before the revival of vinyl buying; I know exactly which album I bought three days ago); I don’t remember what the last cassette album I bought was, but I do know that this album was one of two ‘last albums’ I bought on CD – I can even tell you where I was and the date. And will, in case you were wondering.
This came out during my wilderness years for new music – I think that the switch from CD to streaming, the advent of reliable mp3 players (I loved my chunky Creative Zen player, but eventually surrendered to the ease of use and ubiquity of the iPod), and the shift in my listening habits in the car contributed, but the truth is that moving halfway round the world, changing my roles and responsibilities, and writing a book did amount to a complete change in how I – how all of us – did things.
We had exchanged life on the outskirts of one of the world’s great cities for rural northern BC; I had exchanged a desk job for one which had me driving all round my mew home town, and one of the things which changed radically for me was that I stopped listening to music.
There’s a significant period of adjustment involved in living somewhere new and so radically different from where you were before. For me, the change was reflected in the way I reached out for small things which reminded me of ‘home’ – I no longer had access to the print media I used to devour, so no-one was telling me about new releases or who I should be listening to. The online discussions I still had access to were increasingly about bands I hadn’t heard of, and who didn’t pitch up on local radio.
Indeed, I didn’t really get on with local radio either – I missed the reliable things I used to hear on the BBC, and quickly turned to the new-fangled idea of podcasts to keep me in touch.
Even in those early days, listening to BBC podcasts felt like a comforting link back to my old life – here were the programmes I used to hear in the car, playing for me in the car, often at roughly the same time of day as I used to hear the originals. I don’t think I consciously stopped listening to music on the road, it just happened. None of my daily journeys were more than about 20 minutes (Prince George is not a big town, nor does it have much traffic), so I was rarely completing my full week’s worth of downloads before the next week came along; music faded out of the space I probably used to listen to it in the most.
So when an album like Takk… came out, I probably didn’t hear about it at all – I didn’t have an office full of people discussing music, I didn’t hear things like it on the radio, and I wasn’t really reading about new music either.
How, then, did I even become aware of it?
Honestly, I don’t know. Here’s what I suspect, though: TV adverts.
Only once I had come to know and love it did it dawn on me that I had heard about half these tracks before on TV, so it must have seeped into my consciousness that way. Certainly, when I did buy myself a copy, I knew what to expect, and there must have been some discussion somewhere which prompted me to download it, then turn it into a physical copy.
I do know that it happened during 2009 (I know, we’re jumping forward a lot at the moment), and the reason I know that is because I was dealing with the fact that my mother was dying while I lived 8000 km away. I traveled over to Scotland three times that year, and my solid, reliable old mp3 player was loaded up with podcasts and music for the trips. On the second of those trips, I had acquired a copy of this album, so somewhere during that summer, I must have gone on iTunes and bought a copy.
I’m not claiming to never have downloaded music for free, but my policy was generally that if it was music I hadn’t already owned in some format, I was going to pay for it, so I’m confident that my digital copy of Takk… had been paid for.
Buying it in iTunes, then converting it to something I could play on my Zen was something of a struggle, though, combined with the fact that I tried to also burn it to CD, and – as seems to have been the story for much of my life – I can’t be sure that the quality was all that great, and this is an album of subtlety and nuance, so I’m not sure I properly got it.
What I do know is that it helped get me through those traumatic few months; a constant, calming presence in my ears as I flew back and forth across the Atlantic. On the day before I flew back home after the memorial service, I flew down to London and spent a few precious hours walking my favourite walk along the South Bank, poking around at the second-hand books under Waterloo Bridge and going in to the record shop at the Festival Hall.
I was looking for – and found – a copy of Finlandia, but also spotted a copy of Takk… and, reasoning that it was the day before my birthday, which I would be spending in Economy on an Air Canada 777, I should treat myself.
Owning a copy of this did change things – I started listening to it in the car, and added more CDs, some of them burned from my digital copies. I changed up to a smartphone as they became available, and started looking around me again; looking for new things to surprise me. I managed to find a balance with the podcasts, and gradually made myself playlists of old favourites to go along with the new things I was discovering.
All of this happened because of this album (and the one before it in the list) as I gradually found my way back in to listening to new things, and reached some sort of equilibrium in my new life.
I often said that adjusting to life in a new country wasn’t enormously difficult, and on the grand scale of things, it wasn’t, but the fact that I have a ten year gap in this list where no new music appears tells a more truthful version, I realise now. I had retreated into the safe and well-known for several years while I processed everything that was going on.
Now, with new methods of acquiring music open to me, and a seemingly settled life, I started to look outward again, and I think a lot of that is down to this strange and delightful album.
It opens – quietly – with the title track, immediately laying out the soundscape – layers of keyboard sounds with voices fading in and almost indistinguishable from the overall wash of sound. There’s a very low note, which might be a bass, but otherwise it’s a wide open sound, welcoming you in and setting the scene.
Glósóli is the first of the tracks I’m sure I heard on a TV show or an advert. It immediately returns me to the soaring vocals of Cocteau Twins, although the language here seems more deliberate, and there’s a marching beat underpinning it, which gives it more forward momentum that many Cocteau Twins songs had. I tried hard to focus on the language, wrongly assuming that the title was related to words in some way, but my Icelandic is not up to much, and in any case, just as I’m focusing hardest on the sounds, the track explodes into life like a Godspeed You! Black Emperor track, which has me grinning and paying no attention to any words while I digest the musical box ending.
Hoppipolla is almost certainly the best known track on here; its anthemic sweep is utterly irresistible, and while I’ve been careful not to refer to video versions of any songs, the one for this is so supremely joyful and silly that I can’t resist recommending you watch it. It is a beautifully constructed piece, designed to provoke emotion, although the circumstances of me first getting to know it tend to produce a different emotion than the intended one, I suspect. Everything about it, even – or perhaps especially – the collapsing ending – appeals to me at a level way beyond simple appreciation.
This is also true of Með blóðnasir which pulls one of the musical threads of Hoppipolla and plays it out over a blurry drum track to give the previous song a kind of unfocused and warm encore; as if the band couldn’t quite let go of the magic they had produced.
Sé lest emerges from static into a world of glockenspiels and pianos, then gradually uses the vocals – the human voice is as much an instrument on this album as any of the others – to build a world of its own. The lyrics are in the band’s own, made-up language, and defy any interpretation, leaving us to enjoy them on their own merits as sounds and texture. The glockenspiel sounds return, calming things down in the place where a middle eight or guitar solo would go if this was a rock song, then the voices push it all back into life along with some brass instruments, which quickly threaten to evolve into an oompah band, but which are drawn back into the mist by the voices. I hear this song as a series of glimpses through a veil – any of the constituent parts could burst into life at any time, but the overall feel of the track keeps them all in check until the clockwork comes along to put everything back in its box. Or something.
Sæglópur features more of the clockwork – a kind of looped sample of a clock being wound provides the rhythmic underpinning to this ethereal, sad song which – I only discovered this much later – is about someone lost at sea, something always in the back of the mind of a small island community. It, again, opens up after the mournful first section, into something perilously close to an actual rock song, although the language and otherworldly fell keep it from just letting loose and turning the guitars all the way up. In any case, it fades back into its original pattern (into the sea, perhaps?) although the third movement is fuller than the first, informed by that muscular middle section.
Any time an album contains a track which is over ten minutes long, it’s going to attract my attention, and take me back to those early seventies album I loved so much. The other things Mílanó has going for it are the way it introduces and then develops a memorable theme, and the fact that it’s named for an Italian city – even after all this time, I am irresistibly drawn to all things Italian, although it occurs to me that my days of commuting to Italy for work haven’t exactly had the attention they perhaps deserve in this whole story.
Ah well, you’ll have to wait another ten years for that…
As I mentioned earlier, some of SIgur Rós’ music does something similar to the Godspeed album I was raving about a couple of posts back; if I have to break it down, I think I would have to conclude that my absolute favourite music of all generally fits a pattern of developing themes over at least ten minutes, while introducing variations and secondary themes, all the while aiming for a destination which may or may not involve an increase in tempo and volume, while also telling a story in words I either have to imagine, or can’t quite make out.
I’m not sure I’ve ever found that section in any record store I’ve ever been in, though.
I don’t know (probably because I have never really though about it before today) if the title of Gong relates in any way to Daevid Allen’s experimental hippy commune of pot-head pixies. I don’t really hear a musical connection beyond the general refusal to stick to three-minute pop songs, but it’s intriguing.
Throughout this review, I have been carefully steering clear of pinning down exactly who is doing what on the album. Even though I owned a CD copy of this, and therefore have sleeve notes I could refer to, I’ve always shied away from knowing too much about the band; who sings what, or even which language it’s being sung in. Unusually for me, I’m not sure I want to know – I prefer to think of this album as having been beamed in from another dimension and part of the appeal of it to me is that it is impenetrable and mysterious. It speaks to the power of the music that I can be uplifted and moved by a song like Gong without having the first idea what’s going on.
And then comes the one track I really do want to know more about. Andvari is a wonder of musical construction, and I find myself, even having listened to it dozens of times, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on with the metre. To describe a piece of music as being in an ever-rotating and seemingly random set of time signatures would be to run the risk of putting people off entirely, but Andvari is clear and lyrical, with a delightful melody. It’s just that the beat seems to wander about at will under the melody, despite there being a steady pulse under that. I’d love to see the sheet music for this, because I’ve no idea how you would notate everything that’s going on.
And then I listen to it again, and just float along without worrying about any of the technicalities, because it’s also that kind of track.
On the odd occasion when I am listening to these on Spotify rather than my own copy, I find myself drawn to the tracks which have the lowest number of plays, and Svo Hljótt is that song on this album. To be clear, it still has over two million plays; it’s not exactly lurking in the dark corners, the neglected child of the album. But it is puzzling to me for two reasons. One is that it is to my ears, just as delightful a track as the others on here. Sure, there’s a hint of accordion at the start, but there’s also yet another gorgeous melody and another enigmatic lyric which seems hopeful and uplifting. Perhaps people don’t generally like songs which are over seven minutes long, although a song generally takes as long as it needs to in my experience, and this definitely doesn’t outstay its welcome.
The other thing which puzzles me, however, is more of a ‘me’ thing. It genuinely astounds me, looking at the counters for each of the albums I’ve visited, that – aside from the big singles, which I’d expect to have more visits than the others – there’s such a variation among individual tracks on the same album. Does no-one actually listen to albums any more? I concede that there are a couple of tracks on here I might add to a playlist and hear in isolation, but I can’t imagine listening to a track like this without hearing it in the context of the whole album.
In a way, that’s what this whole project has been about for me – a chance to revisit entire albums. I know that there are albums here which have not detained me, but which might have yielded a track or to I’d like to go back to. But ingrained in me is the idea that the only way to hear things was to put the whole album on the record player, and it seems I’d still rather do that than hear things in smaller chunks. Indeed, I can get quite twitchy if I’ve had to leave off listening halfway through an album, and will go back and complete the exercise as soon as possible after the interruption.
All of which is distracting me from the final track, Heysátan, which fulfils a vital purpose for any great album, in bringing it to an appropriate close. If I’ve been engrossed in a sound world, like I have with this, the icing on the cake is the band essentially asking my permission to take their leave, which is exactly what Heysátan does, calling back to the sounds which have gone before, but slowing them down and pausing for breath before quietly going out but leaving the door open for future visits.
I hadn’t listened to Takk… for a while – maybe years – but diving back into it just now was soothing and reinvigorating in exactly the way I had imagined it would be, and has reminded me of how the doors to more new music were opened for me, even if I was now buying invisible digital copies of everything.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Ágætis byrjun and () are the usual suspects, although I don’t know them nearly as well as I know this one. There’s much to discover in the world of Sigur Rós.
Compilations to consider?
Not as such; there’s one called Hvarf/Heim which is a mix of new songs and acoustic renditions of older ones, but to invoke one of my recurring themes – go buy a whole album…
Inni is a multimedia extravaganza from 2011, and part of it is a live CD which is worth hearing. The band seem not to be terribly active these days, so this may be as good as it gets for live material
Well, I feel I should point you to other music from Iceland, like the Sugarcubes, and former member Björk, (and you should check them out), but I’d like to also point you to the much-missed Jóhann Jóhannsson,whose Fordlandia album was unjustly ejected from this list (it remained first reserve for a long time, but I never could quite fit it all in). You’ve probably heard some of his film music, but he was an extraordinary composer of music in general, and while he didn’t have any formal link with Sigur Rós, there’s definitely a kinship there.