One of the very few good things about working through the liquidation of Borders—just over a year ago, now—was the fact that we could play whatever music we pleased on the overhead speakers. Corporate was a specter of the chain of events that led us there, and we didn’t have to answer their call to play the same four promo discs until our minds were numb; we at least had that freedom to choose our own soundtrack to our last days as a store. On the very last day, the few people winding the day down, waiting for the last customers to come through and pick up their fixtures, were sitting around what once was our information desk, turned into a red island in a sea of carpet—our last vestige of what we once had in the cavernous building. I was scrolling through the music on my iPod, looking for something particularly indicative of what we were going through and could possibly guide us to brighter days. I chose Sigur Rós’ “Festival,” the incredible centerpiece of their most current record at the time, Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust. To me, the song had been perfect in illustrating the feelings that we were going through—or at least the ones I was going through, and helped me out along the way during the liquidation process. The somber beginning, with Jónsi Birgisson beautifully willing your emotions in whichever way he pleased, was representative of the initial hurt we were all feeling, losing not only our jobs but also the place where so many memories had been made and relationships forged. I personally met the love of my life in that store, and many people over the years fell in love just as I had, whether it is with a person or a book. As the song picks up, a crescendo tumbling on top of me, the memories came tumbling with it. While each memory passes before my eyes, a feeling of peace seems to be building up within me. The way the music is so powerful and emotional allowed me to see clarity beyond the present turmoil that we were in. I knew, as the final notes of “Festival” faded away, that we were all going to be okay.
Fast-forward to a year later, most of us settled into the next chapter of our lives, the memories of the last hollow days of Borders dissipated and replaced by the fuller days we experienced there. After letting the latest Sigur Rós record, Valtari, sink in over the summer, opening itself up to me under starry skies on drives home and the rare overcast morning, the coming autumn is bringing it all into perspective. The music of the Icelandic group seems to grow exponentially better with the air temperature dropping; I don’t know if it’s their affinity for cold weather that allows them to convey the feeling of a harsh winter so eloquently, or just that no other group has the ability to paint a grey sky blue like Sigur Rós, but something about their emotional “slow motion rock” envelops the listener like a blanket. Valtari is no different. Though the record is a change of pace for the band—the space present on Valtari is expansive, asking patience of the listener in letting the tracks breathe and slowly blossom—it proves to be one of their most slowly unfolding, yet enriching listening experiences among their already stunning catalog.
“Ég Anda” opens the album by subtly introducing the many elements on display throughout the duration of the record. Jónsi’s voice seems to come from within a deep cavern, and as the song progresses, the listener is guided slowly to the inside where the band is performing. At first his voice is accompanied only by strings bouncing off the walls around him, disjointed guitars and ambient synthesizers. The listener breaks through to their world as Orri Páll Dýrason’s delicate, yet always overwhelmingly powerful drumming enters the mix. Sigur Rós performs their music entirely in their native language of Icelandic, and sometimes in a more interpretive “Hopelandic,” a means for Jónsi to deliver his hauntingly beautiful falsetto without necessarily tying the music to a specific meaning. Due to the foreign nature of the language used, it becomes even easier to connect emotionally to their music; the fact that lyrical content shapes the way we listen to music is definitely something that is felt even in its absence. Sigur Rós asks the listener to close their eyes and allow the music to extract feeling from the sound of the music, rather than the content. As a result, Valtari constantly walks a fine line between melancholy and celebratory.
Though Valtari is sparsely composed, relying heavily on ambience and ethereal atmospheres rather than the overwhelming power of their all-out post-rock attack of the past, the entire record falls wholly in the celebratory category. It is best to consider as a unified piece rather than a collection of songs; they let some tracks play the role of interludes of sorts, deep breaths as they collect themselves for the next peak. “Ekki Múkk” is a classical-leaning track that sees bassist Georg Hólm and the band’s programming wizard Kjarri Sveinsson provide massive swells to lay underneath Jónsi’s soaring vocal. The somewhat minimal approach allows the listener to really feel and explore the space provided—emotions tend to wrap themselves around the shimmering vocal and enter the stratosphere as his voice breaks through the plane of notes and delivery that seem humanly possible. The track gives way to the more straight-forward—in Sigur Rós’ world, anyway—“Varúð.” Built around a simplistic three-chord keyboard progression, the song constantly climbs to new heights, serving as the arguable peak of Valtari. “Varúð” feels like coming home after a long day of work in the chilling winter; there is a comforting and enveloping nature to the intensely structured sound, guitar sounds extracted with a violin bow, and climbing drums and bass.
Valtari spreads itself back out from there, providing chilling moments that are constantly evolving to the next chilling moment. The highly meditative “Dauðalogn” can practically be touched and held, though the fluid nature of the song allows it to always slip through the listener’s grasp. The same could really be said of any track—the last three songs, made of up of “Varðeldur,” “Valtari,” and “Fjögur Píanó” serve as a closing suite that, when looked at as a whole, is so tangibly stirring that the songs are drops of rain coming from the sky, each note or subtle drum hit lands on the listener’s head and rolls down their face. The pacing of the record, though perhaps not the best accompaniment to stifling summer days, is incredibly rewarding when given time to take it in, and the appropriate setting for it to be impactful. Valtari isn’t going to be the most easily accessible Sigur Rós record, but fans of the band will find the album to be highly beautiful and transcendent of even the work they have done in the past.
As for that day, a year ago, my coworkers at Borders nixed “Festival” pretty much from the very beginning, looking for something a little bit more upbeat to try to take their minds off of the sad state of affairs surrounding us. I completely understood—the music of Sigur Rós is incredibly interpretive and could possibly only open itself up to be uplifting if the listener is ready for it to be. I guess the music has always hit me at the right time, searching for a destiny, going through a life-changing event and seeing people I care about hurt, or even on the drive to visit my future father-in-law’s—whom I had met only two days prior to his hospitalization—burial site to tell him I mean to take care of his daughter forever, SigurRós has always been there for me right when I needed it, to give me strength. There are just some things in life that cannot be controlled, and music can help us cope with that realization. For me, there has never been an artist that is more life-affirming and beautiful; when listening to Valtari, that all-too familiar feeling washes over me, like I am lying in a riverbed and the music itself is the water rushing over my face. That feeling is that we are all going to be okay.