Last week, for its 20th anniversary, ( ) was reissued in a remastered edition with bonus tracks. It comes amid a spate of renewed activity for the band, which long lay dormant until it returned with a Nordic opera in 2020, just a raven’s feather too early for the Edda-based wave of Sandmen and Northmen and Odin-knows-what-all men to come. Reunited with prodigal keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson—who joined for Ágætis byrjun, helped professionalize the self-taught band, and left in 2012—they’re on a world tour, with a new album slated for next year.
Underlining its stature in Sigur Rós’ catalog, ( ) features heavily in their current setlist, and they say that its pounding, cresting, 12-minute finale, “Untitled #8,” has closed all of their shows since it was written. It was their first record with drummer Orri Páll Dýrason, who stayed in the band until he was accused of sexual assault in 2018. It also features Sveinsson; Georg Holm’s bass, keyboard, and glockenspiel; the string quartet Amiina; and Jónsi at the center, his voice a lonely candle leading through a dim, reverberating cathedral, his guitar the huge and dancing shadows it throws upon the walls.
The record was shaped in two halves, first light, then dark, but even the light is draped with heavy penumbra, to the pleasure of those who find Sigur Rós’ fearlessness of treacle both indispensable and sometimes cloying. More an awakening than a mere beginning, “Untitled #1” is a crepuscular piano hymn bathed in soft organ tones and yowling harmonies from which any trace of sourness has been charcoal-filtered out. The second track is mottled and eerie, and only with the third—which, with about 35 million Spotify streams, is the most popular song on the album by far—do we finally hear an undiluted example of the childlike, Yuletide splendor that made them famous.
Often, ( ) hints at a darker, more difficult Sigur Rós while remaining impeccably easy to listen to—especially the fifth track, which is saturnine and arcane, with Jónsi’s consoling candle now like an oily torch revealing inscriptions on obsidian. This side of the band initiates the second half of the record, where most of the bonus material comes from. In addition to the three tracks of the numinous non-album piece “Untitled #9,” which have long been available online, there are demo versions of the sixth, seventh, and eighth songs. (A forthcoming physical edition will include further bonuses, for better or worse.) These kinds of extras are obligatory for the artist and easily passed over by the listener, which is recommended here, because they’re kind of detrimental.
There is something intensely beside the point, even perverse, about listening to Sigur Rós demos. Their music’s magic lies in how it comes to us so polished and perfect, after all those murky, unruly sounds have been soothed and smoothed by producers and engineers until each one seems impossibly close and larger than life. Yet here’s “Untitled #6” without its crucial scratchy guitar tone, and “#7” with shakier time and an earlier ascent. None of it seems very revealing or flattering, and hearing Jónsi’s voice without its finery is markedly illusion-breaking. Who wants to see Santa’s belly in a plain undershirt? But that deliberate concession to the market is the only way in which ( ) has lost any of its cloudy, mirrored shine. The thing about made-up language is that it always keeps finding new things to say.
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