Sigur Rós

Ágætis Byrjun (FatCat Records)

Thoughts of birds and whatever cloud my brain. I can see some through the window. The birds are getting to my brain through my ears, and they're getting there through my headphones, which are whispering the songs of Ágætis Byrjun, the new album by Icelandic quartet Sigur Rós,to me while my train races through brownish, windswept rural areas.

Twilight is shaking hands with darkness; as the deal is being made, the train is passing radio antennae that blip red in time with the music. In the distance dimming bedroom lights flash on and off, on and off, on and off, putting what I imagine to be too fine a point on too dull a day. Hulking, alien-looking mountains of Jurassic machinery whip past. The sky darkens, then releases small, hesitant drops of rain. Passengers get on and off, on and off, on and off. A voice announces that a fillet of catfish will be served to someone somewhere.

And still the birds cry.

It's hard not to get metaphysical when talking about Sigur Rós, so quietly earth-shifting is the group's otherworldly din. This is music not made for unit-shifting and cross-marketing and easy consumption, packaged and sold in bite-size pieces to audiences in search of the sound of Freddie Prinze Jr.'s heartbeat. It is, to fly in the face of melodrama, the opposite of that: music created to reach the sky. Singer Jón Pór Birgisson sings as though he fell from heaven last week. Check the chorus of "Svefn-G-Englar," on which he forms words that neither I nor anyone else who doesn't speak Icelandic (or the self-invented language Birgisson calls Hopelandish) understands, over a Niagara Falls of glacial guitar and sonar pinging. Even better, try not to be swallowed by the enveloping string-section loveliness of "Flugufrelsarinn," the very next track.

Simply put, this is music that risks everything to dip into the womblike waters of bold-faced romanticism, chucking emotional reserve to embrace wide-eyed wonder, but never slipping off the cliff into icky treacle or hammy, broad-stroked parody. Don't ask me how the group does it, because I have no idea. But as the title track reaches its elegiac denouement, I've no choice but to give in, confident that the beauty is enough. Earth has never looked as extraterrestrial as it does tonight.

 
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