ICELAND: Ágætis Byrjun - Sigur Rós
Updated: Apr 10
An artistic masterpiece that at moments transcends reality with its truly unique sound.
Labelling something as ‘art’ does not bother me, so long as the subject in question demonstrates an element of creative expression and imagination by its creator. Yet, I do feel that assessing something as ‘high art’ is perhaps a term that gets bandied around a bit too easily by some. Whilst I acknowledge that I am not the objective arbiter of such labels, for me there is one thing that makes a sculpture, a painting etc. a valid contender to be considered as deserving of this level of high-praise; it must not spoon-feed its audience and should allow them to make their own mind up on its meaning or conclusions. During the lockdown I took on the mammoth task of completing the hit TV show The Sopranos. Having recently completed the final episode of the show, whilst I am keen to not give any spoilers away, it is safe to say that the contemplative state that it left me in, as well as a myriad of other factors, indicates that the show must be attributed the honour of being viewed as ‘high art’. Just like art that might be found in a gallery, other creative endeavours such as literature, drama and music also have the capacity of reaching these dizzying heights, especially when they place the onus on the audience to decide on the meaning and significance of what is on display.
“Its hypnotic quality calls for every listener’s undivided attention, to marvel at the juxtaposition of the rawness of its energy and its incompleteness, its simplicity and its expansion, as well as its sonic peace and pandemonium.”
Another classic example of ‘high-art’ on television that I witnessed not too long ago, surprisingly came from the final scene of the season 13 finale of the American sitcom It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The show, which is typically grounded in shock-humour from its grotesque characters’ behaviour and outlook on life, culminated in a scene which rather unusually presented ineffable beauty. The character of Mac, who had been suppressing his homosexuality for the length of the show, performed an interpretative dance in which he came out as gay to his father, his friends, God, and himself. The dance, which left its audience to decide on their own meaning, portrayed a figurative nakedness and an immense vulnerability that was perpetuated by the music which accompanied it. The song that was playing over this powerful scene was Varúð which comes from the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós' sixth studio album, Valtari. This was the first time I heard the music of Sigur Rós and little did I know that a deeper dive into their music itself would rightly have me attribute the label of ‘high-art’ to it too.
The potency of Sigur Rós as a band and their 1999 album Ágætis byrjun comes from the utterly contemplative nature of their music, as not even Icelandic compatriots are able to understand them. This is because lead-singer Jónsi Birgisson often sings in his invented language Vonlenska (Hopelandic) as well as in Icelandic. The use of Hopelandic means that the only people who know the intended meaning of the album in full are the band themselves. Therefore the band gift their audience not only with a stunningly beautiful album, but they also allow them to draw their own conclusions regardless of their nationality, making this a truly globally-accessible album. Before I found this out, I rather egotistically thought that the second track Svefn-g-englar was repeating the phrase ‘it’s you’ over and over again in a falsetto voice, as if the band were trying to tell me and each of their listeners something directly about us. However, a quick search of the lyrics soon made me realise that Birgisson is instead repeating the made-up Hopelandic word ‘tjú’. Perhaps, this was the desired effect to show us that as humans we often attribute significance and meaning onto things that suit us and are about ourselves and our actions, due to our cerebral instinct to view the world with a certain kind of self-importance, when in fact we often fail to see that we are just a tiny, and somewhat insignificant, cog in the bigger picture of the universe. Either way, whatever ‘tjú’ was intended to mean by Sigur Rós, it actually does not matter. All I know is that it certainly put a smile on my face to know that I was able to project some kind of deeper meaning onto lyrical gibberish and am still left pondering it as I write this review.
Ágætis byrjun is described as post-rock, a catch-all term that describes minimalist music that blends genres such as krautrock, free jazz and psychedelia, however, that makes it sound like the album is going to be a cacophonous car-crash of noise, when it is instead sounds like an angelic piece of chamber music that has flashes of raw-energetic rock. When listening to this enigmatic album I would suggest you treat it almost as a meditation. Its hypnotic quality calls for every listener’s undivided attention, to marvel at the juxtaposition of the rawness of its energy and its incompleteness, its simplicity and its expansion, as well as its sonic peace and pandemonium. As it is a cohesive piece of music I cannot recommend you to listen to some songs over others, partially because they are all phenomenal, but also due to the fact that some may have greater meaning and depth to me than they might to you. However, I can share that personally I fell in love with Starálfur, particularly the sound of the string quartet which created almost a transcendent audio experience, as if I was watching the world beneath me sat on a cloud or floating in a hot air balloon.
The album whilst it does not sound like it was made in the '90s nor does it sound like it is from the modern era or even the future. It is not just a timeless piece but rather appears to come from another dimension or universe. The cosmic quality of the album is fascinating. Yet its other-worldly nature is somewhat ironic, as for me this album evokes images of the beauty of the Earth rather than other planets or universes. I hear Ágætis byrjun as almost a cinematic album which would work as a perfect accompaniment to a non-narrative documentary film such as Samsara, a guided meditation showing conceptual imagery of nature that exists in the world. If I shut my eyes listening to the album and let the music take me on a journey there are moments I can see everything from the relatively neutral, yet still pretty, green grass and rolling hills to the lapping of the waves on the seashore all the way to the more spectacular glaciers and volcanoes at the more epiphanic moments. This is particularly pertinent when I then consider that the band members are from what is thought to be one of the most naturally wondrous places in the world, Iceland. Perhaps, it was just knowing this fact and nothing else that planted the seed in my mind and guided me to think about nature in all of its wonder. The joy of this album is that there is no correct way to interpret it. Every meaning and every image it paints in one’s mind is valid and interesting. That is why I believe Ágætis byrjun is not just one of the best album’s to come out of Scandinavia, but it is also ‘high-art’ that deserves all the plaudits it can get.