In one of the final scenes in Wes Anderson’s film “The Life Aquatic,” oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his crew finally witness up close the mysterious “Jaguar shark” they’ve spent the film looking for, while “Staralfur,” a song off Sigur Ros’ second album Agaetis Byrjun plays behind them. The scene is pure magic, with the otherworldly falsetto vocals of frontman Jon Thor Birgisson and the band’s bowed guitar sound mirroring the majesty of the massive shark, whose scales look like pieces of broken stained glass. Considering how dull and awkward the movie can be up until that moment, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the Icelandic foursome nearly saves the film.
The irony of my praise for “Staralfur” is that I own a copy of Agaetis Byrjun that I haven’t listened to in two years. As beautiful as the band’s music is, its tranquil beauty can often lead to some tranquil zzz’s. And it also doesn’t help that Birgisson sings in a language of his own invention that he’s dubbed “Hopelandic,” which leads to strange song titles like “Svefn-G-Englar” or “Hoppipolla.” And did I mention the band’s last album was entitled ( )? Yes, weirdness seems to be the price to pay for enjoying the band’s music, and it’s hard not to blame some fans for tiring of paying that price.
With Takk…, Sigur Ros have made their most accessible album to date, and in this reviewer’s opinion, their most beautiful. While all of the previous elements from the first three albums remain, including Birgisson’s angelic vocals, guitars played with violin bows and hypnotic electronic backgrounds, Takk- adds bells, strings, and trumpets to the band’s sound. This goes a long way in bringing the band’s often sonar sound back down to earth. Listening to the album’s first real track, “Glosoli,” I was reminded far more of Coldplay or the Doves than electronic acts like Royksopp and Mum. That particular track has an intense martial drum beat that gets louder and louder as the track unfolds, the string arrangements first circling around the melody, until finally surging up with it in the song’s epic climax. “Glosoli” is the blueprint for much of the rest of the album, trafficking in the soft-loud-soft dynamic so familiar to fans of post-rock instrumental bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Mogwai.
But at the same time this song structure presents a bit of a problem. How many times is it possible to listen to the band surge into a string-laden crescendo before it just seems kind of stale? There’s not much difference between songs like “Glosoli,” “Hoppipolla” or “Saeglopur,” except whatever the hell Birgisson is singing and a few instrumental touches. The few tracks that don’t subscribe to the soft-loud-soft dynamic, like title track “Takk-” or “Se Lest” often feel underwritten or full of too many disparate parts. “Se Lest,” for example, has a powerful crescendo, a majestic trumpet coda and a part where Birgisson sings behind strings that dart in and out, like the sound of hummingbirds in the morning.
The two songs I feel best highlight Sigur Ros’ new sound are “Gong” and “Heysatan.” The former sounds like something off Radiohead’s Kid A, with Birgisson legitimately sounding distressed, as opposed to his usual tranquil mumblings. With an almost funky drumbeat, the song sounds cagey and tense. “Gong” reveals that the real thing missing from Sigur Ros previous albums was true drama. Because it doesn’t really matter what language you sing in, listeners everywhere can identify real, visceral emotion.
“Heysatan” takes a different route, with Birgisson sounding tired and broken, backed by only piano, cello and trumpets. Not to press the Radiohead comparison, but the song reminds me of “Motion Picture Soundtrack” off Kid A in both its total vulnerability and its strange serenity. Considering the song’s title (there’s no mistaking the phrase “Hey Satan”), Sigur Ros might finally be moving towards the spiritual, as opposed to shallow tranquility.
Despite the album’s flaws, its beauty can’t be denied. Listening to songs like “Glosoli” or “Saeglopur,” a feeling of transcendence takes over, and often the only response is awe at the majesty of the music. When those strings kick in and Birgisson hits those high notes, irony and self-consciousness stay far, far below.
Sigur Ros play a sold-out show at the Roseland tonight. Their new album, Takk-, is available in stores now.