#31: Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun (1999)

Sigur Rós is one of those bands, I get the impression, where if you’re really going to do a review of them justice, you ought to find out a bit about their process and the technical elements of how they make music.

But we’re not going to do that today. Let me tell you about my synaesthesia.

The older I get, the more I feel like a very spacial thinker. That’s not in the helpful sense that would make me good at estimating distance or map reading. It’s a bit more abstract than that. Numbers have a physical structure – odd numbers are slanted, for example, and multiples of three have a wide, blocky base – and, more importantly for the purposes of thinking about music, sounds have a texture. Sometimes that’s like tarmac or wood grain or porcelain. Often there’s depth or colour in it: something about prog rock is often uncomfortably shadowy, and wide open or exposed. Miles Davis felt like a long, low room, stretching off into the distance, with a heavily textured ceiling. A fortnight ago, Shakira felt like a series of steps. This is probably about as interesting to you as having a mild acquaintance explain their last night’s dream to you.

But I tell you, I sat down this week and listened to Sigur Rós and knitted. And it was intense.

What does that mean, for the non-ridiculous among us? Looking at a lot of reviews of Ágætis Byrjun, I’m seeing words like “alien”, “ethereal”, “submerged”. And, yeah, I can see that – this is the sort of music that fits with your heart rate and then slows it down slightly. It’s very easy to listen to without doing anything much else at the same time – you just sort of hook your thoughts onto Jón Thór Birgisson’s improbable, interesting voice, and let it all spin out in front of you. I was expecting to find Ágætis Byrjun cavernous, airy, light, and I didn’t. I understood it in a very tactile way – it felt to me like doing origami in my mind. I don’t know how to turn that into something that’s easy to explain. But a pair of headphones, and this, and quietly stitching in a comfy chair… and suddenly it was seventy minutes later and I’d barely written anything down.

That never happens.

It seems to me that listening to this in 2017 is probably quite different from listening to it in 1999. It’s only coming back around on a second and third listen that I noticed how much was going on: the blend of strings and electronics, layers of drone and bass that has become more common lately as it’s become easier and more accessible to create. Maybe a listener eighteen years ago would have found it more alien, more ethereal, than I did. I don’t know how I’ve managed to escape listening to Sigur Rós for so long, given that I’ve done a small but fairly steady line in ambient electronica combined with staring into space over the last five years. There is value in taking a technically complicated thing at face value, and quietly weaving your own stories out of it. I’ve been thinking about that this week, in several contexts, but nowhere more than here. So this isn’t a review, not really. That would be breaking something.