Still Something is Missing... - Sigur Rós's Ágætis byrjun turns 20
And it’s a story that I’ve told before, so if you’ve heard it already, one of the other times that I’ve told it, you don’t have to listen this time. But following the events of September 11th, 2001, a number of cable networks had, temporarily, suspended their programming.
Saying it was something that had been done ‘out of respect’ doesn’t quite seem like the right way to describe it; perhaps it was simply done more out of shock—and an uncertainty of what was going to happen next.
I really hadn’t been in college all that long when those events occurred—maybe a few weeks? On that Tuesday morning, classes were abruptly canceled, and we were all encouraged to watch the news in order to find out more about what was going on.
There are a lot of things after that day that I don’t really remember very clearly—this was, after all, 18 years ago. I remember the professor in my first-year writing class knew somebody that had died in the events, and she changed the syllabus so that one of the first assignments we were given was to write a reflection on the events of September 11th in the days that followed.
Maybe a week, or so, after that Tuesday, I found myself sitting on the floor in the dorm room of the girl that I was dating at the time, and would continue to be in a relationship with until the beginning of my final year in college. Tensions were running high in the room—the introduction of a ‘boyfriend’ had, on my part unintentionally, upset the balance between Leane, the girl I was involved with, and her roommate and friend, Danielle.
Tensions were also running high because of the post-9/11 fear everyone on campus was walking around with, even though we were safely nestled in a small, liberal arts college in Iowa. Everybody was upset, or on edge, to some degree, whether they realized it at the time or not.
Danielle, a pop culture connoisseur and consumer of cable television, had more or less become furious over the fact that a number of networks had still suspended their programming in the wake of the September 11th attacks. On this night in question, Danielle and Leane became engrossed in a relatively volatile discussion—dare I say argument—about this.
One network that had not suspended programming, or if they had, had already returned to broadcasting, was MTV2.
As they were arguing behind me, I sat on the floor, on what was most certainly a Todd Oldham for Target rug (Leane’s), and was transfixed by what I saw on the tiny screen.
Translated into English, “Svefn-g-englar” means either “Sleepwalkers” or “sleep angels,” and it’s the second track, though first proper ‘song’ on Sigur Rós’ third album, Ágætis byrjun, which, translated into English, either means “An Alright Start,” or, “A Good Beginning.”1
The song, over 10 minutes in length, was accompanied by a video—set to a ‘single’ version of the song (shaving less than a minute off of the running time.) The piece, directed August Jacobsson, and chorographed by Lára Stefánsdóttir, features the Perlan theatre group—a troupe of Icelandic actors, all of whom have Down syndrome—wearing angel costumes, moving in slow motion, in a lush, very green, Icelandic location.
I was all of 18 years old, and this was like nothing I had ever seen before.
The music, too, at that time, was like nothing I had encountered—nothing I was really prepared to hear. Yes, sure, I had started to cultivate my tastes a little; already a longtime fan of Radiohead, I had started branching out with albums by Jeff Buckley, PJ Harvey, and Portishead gracing my collection; but, like, just a year before this, I was buying CDs by Limp Bizkit on the day of their release.
I was not prepared for the distended, otherworldly, cavernous howl coming from a bowed electric guitar, the pummeling organ drones that come in midway through the song after a very, very quiet moment, or for Sigur Rós’ frontman, Jónsi Birgisson’s, ethereal vocal delivery.
I sat, watching this video unfold, while Danielle and Leane continued to argue behind me, until I turned around and asked them to stop, because something important was happening.
By the end of that week, on a trip to the Kennedy Mall, I purchased the one CD copy of Ágætis byrjun available at Musicland. I still have the CD—I never made some kind of huge purge the way a lot of people did in the mid-2000s, fully buying into digital music. The navy blue of the cover, now faded; the cardboard edges of the package are worn from time.
The Musicland I bought it at is long gone now—I don’t remember when it closed, probably sometime after 2005 or 2006, which was when I left Dubuque, and the rest of Iowa behind me. The Kennedy Mall itself is now a ghost town, with more empty storefronts lining its poorly lit hallways than businesses that are actually open.
I don’t remember the last time I saw, or spoke to, Danielle.
In the age of social media, you more or less can keep in touch with anyone in a very passive way—she got married a number of years ago and has a child now; the same goes for Leane, who, despite all my efforts during our relationship to get her into dreamy Icelandic post-rock, I’m not sure if she ever really liked Sigur Rós—truthfully, only like one or two people in my immediate circle of friends at that time did. Leane and I broke up in the fall of 2004 because at that time, I was completely in love with somebody else—afterword, she and I tried to remain friends or at least cordial with one another for a while, but fell out of touch.2
She, too, got married, and has two kids, and there is a very, very strong possibility that I will never see either of them ever again—the same could be said for a number of people who came into my life during this time.
I’m not sure how I am supposed to feel about Sigur Rós in 2019—two decades after the initial release of Ágætis byrjun and 18 years after it eventually made its way to the shores of the United States and I sat in front of a small television in a tense dorm room, hypnotized by what I was witnessing.
The band’s career trajectory, since then, has not been one of diminishing returns—no, far from it, because in the years that followed, at least up until 2008, they were a band of transcendental highs; but since the release of their 2013 effort, they haven’t been an act of even diminishing returns—instead, little, if any, return at all.
The Ágætis byrjun reissue was, at one point, announced in early 2015, and was going to serve as a 16th anniversary, definitive edition of the album, slated for a summer release. Summer came and went, and soon 2015 became 2016, then 2017, then 2018—and the reissued edition of the album never materialized.
In the interim, the band started focusing its efforts on a number of interactive, multimedia projects. In 2016, they released a one-off single, and drove around Iceland, live streaming the entire thing, setting it to music. Two years later, Jónsi Birgisson’s and his partner Alex Sommers, along with other collaborators, created something called Liminal, which was an alleged ‘endless mixtape’ to go along with immersive ‘sound bath’ experiences that were hosted.
Idiosyncratic experiments aside, there are actions within band members’ personal lives that also gives reason for pause—including the numerous times that the members of the group have been charged with tax evasion (cleared of charges in 2018, new charges were filed in 2019), as well as the graphic accusations of sexual assault brought against the band’s longtime drummer, Orri Páll Dýrason, in Ocotober of 2018. Dýrason ‘resigned’ from the band following the accusations being made very public, and claimed he was planning on trying to prove his innocence in the matter.
As of now, he has yet to do so, and the band as a whole has yet to be cleared of the most recent tax evasion scandal.
Like I said, I’m not sure how I am supposed to feel about Sigur Rós in 2019.
To call Ágætis byrjun anything but ambitious is underselling its awe and its complexities.
Arriving only five years after the band had formed, and two after the release of their very rough debut, Von (translated, it means ‘hope’), Ágætis byrjun is a record that is spilling over with the kind of confidence and focused artistic vision that some artists never make throughout their entire career. Can it be self-indulgent and temperamental at times—yes, of course it can. But what is one of the things that is so important about it is that you can hear Sigur Rós slowly (very slowly in some cases) beginning to move away from that indistinct, restless sound that they spent two years in the studio for with Von, and moving toward writing music that holds on to those arty, dramatic elements, but can be more concise—but if not more concise, can be more compelling and evocative in execution and arranging.
In conjunction with the actual 20th anniversary of Ágætis byrjun’s release in the band’s native Iceland (in 2000 it would be issued in the UK; 2001 for the United States), the long gestating reissue and remaster of the album was released in June of this year3—complete with a lavish, 7xLP limited edition boxed set, as well as scaled back, standard versions on both LP and CD—the reissue’s intent is to present a picture of Sigur Rós from this time by including in the ephemeral material4 a live recording from the band’s homeland in 1999, as well as demo recordings and a few alternate, early mixes.
I’m not sure how I am supposed to feel about Sigur Rós in 2019; however, this reissue is a reminder of how I felt about them during the early part of the 2000s, and more importantly, a reminder of the band, and this music, was capable of making me feel.
In January of 2005, my wife and I went out on our first ‘date.’ I was entering into the final semester of my senior year, and she was a junior at St. Olaf College, in Northfield Minnesota. We had been friends for a number of years5, staying in touch through letters and emails, then eventually phone conversations. There was a point during the conversations when we ceased being friends and were ‘together,’ though it was difficult, at times, to figure out how to navigate the idea of a long distance relationship.
St. Olaf has what is called a January Term (or ‘J-Term’) which was something I had never heard of until Wendy, then my girlfriend and now my wife of over a decade, explained it to me. I was in the midst of an alarmingly long winter break from school, and shortly after January began, I made the very long drive, for the first time, to visit her.
While I was visiting, she and I planned a ‘date’ along with another couple—her friend Lindsey and her then boyfriend, now husband of, like, 13 years, Dominic. We went for a romantic dinner for four at a now shuttered Macaroni Grill, then after that, made our way to a large multiplex to see The Life Aquatic.
I say that The Life Aquatic is my favorite Wes Anderson movie for a number of reasons. One is I hold a sentimental attachment to it since it was the first ‘date’ I went on with the woman I married; but at the time, there was something about it that was unlike any other film he’d made up to that point.
The third track (and second proper ‘song’) off of Ágætis byrjun, “Starálfur,” which translates to “Starting Elf,” is used at a pivotal, beautiful moment in The Life Aquatic. The first time I saw the movie, in the theatre, on this date, the impact of the song and the way it was used in the film didn’t hit me all the way; I was too distracted by the circumstances with which I was seeing it. It didn’t hit me until weeks later, when I saw the movie a second time with a large group of friends, once I had returned to college for my final semester.
In a long row of seats, sandwiched in between friends—none of whom I have seen in very, very long time—and will more than likely never see again if I am being completely honest—the moment in the film arrived, and this time, the gravity of it all hit me, and I started crying. Up until that point, it’s the first time I can ever remember crying during a movie.
Ágætis byrjun is not a fast record.
Even when it grows louder and more cacophonic in the arranging, it tries to remain as true to the glacial pace that the band begins it with.
It’s also long. 10 tracks doesn’t seem like that many, especially when the first is the obligatory introduction and lasts slightly over a minute, the album makes use of the amount of memory you can store on a CD, arriving at over 70 minutes; almost every song is over eight minutes in length.
“Svefn-g-englar” is by no means one of the best songs on the album, but it sets the tone for things to come. In a sense, it’s what the band uses to lure you into their world—it’s hypnotic in its structure, built around a rippling, sonar-esq sound effect that pings out underneath the layers of bowed, cavernous, squalling guitars, heavy organ droning, and steady percussion keeping the whole thing together to a rhythm.
The thing that is most iconic about “Svefn-g-englar” is the mesmerizing repetition of the expression the expression “Tjú.” And the thing that most people know, if they know anything at all about Sigur Rós is that, at this point in their career, Birgisson sung in the band’s native Icelandic6 language. This is one of the times when it sounds, however, like he’s singing something in English, or that it sounds similar to something in English—perhaps because we want it to.
It sounds like he’s saying “It’s you,” and there is, apparently, no translation from Icelandic to English for “Tjú.” According to the song’s annotation on the lyric website Genius, this is a sound that Icelanders make to soothe newborns.
Spread across 10 minutes, the song builds to an explosive peak, before slowly receding just as slowly as it crept in—eventually making way for a glitchy, instrumental interlude before the lush, haunting strings of “Starálfur” begin.
The strings, I just recently learned, are palindromic in the way they were written—meaning they are the same, both forward and in reverse.
It’s hard to separate “Starálfur” from its usage in The Life Aquatic—however, the scene in the film needs the song. The song is strong enough to stand on its own with out a connection to the film. It was already one of the strongest, most emotionally evocative pieces on the album—primarily based around the strings and Birgisson’s soaring vocals, with little else (some percussion swooping in here and there) to accompany it.
The strings are reused in the album’s final moment, “Avalon,” shifted down to about a quarter of the original speed.
The intent, I believe, with almost all Sigur Rós records, is that they are listened to from beginning to end, however in 2005 and 2008, the band grasped the idea of the ‘single,’ or writing things that were more concise and a little easier to access. The other standout moment on Ágætis byrjun arrives in the form of "Ný batterí,” a dizzying, brooding eight minutes that spends over the first minute a very breathy wind section creating the introduction. A somewhat unnerving bass line creeps in underneath that, as well as the clanking of Birgisson’s bowed guitar feedback. A staple of the band’s theatrical live show, "Ný batterí,” or “New Batteries,” is the most cathartic on the record, and nearly anyone who has seen them perform live before can speak to the moment when the drums kick in—at about four and a half minutes in, before the song spirals to a frenetic place where you think the band may not be able to hang onto it, but they do, reeling it back in before it fades away into the ether.
The video for “Svefn-g-englar” may have been surprising, yes, but the video for the album’s seventh track, released after the album had arrived in the United States in 2001, was even more surprising and, perhaps, controversial. “Viðrar vel til loftárása,” quite literally translates to “good weather for airstrikes,” a comment made by Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson (now the president of Iceland) during the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999.
The song’s video, shot entirely in dreamy, hazy slow motion, tells the story of two young boys in the 1950s who, while playing in a soccer match, begin kissing on the field after a goal is scored.
The song itself, another long one (slightly over 10 minutes) tries to marry the band’s penchant for lush, swooning string arrangements and bombastic piano chords, with its ‘post-rock’ roots—akin to the more song oriented material from Von.
Those ‘post-rock’ roots are what make up a majority of the rest of Ágætis byrjun. Songs like “Flugufrelsarinn,” “Hjartað hamast (bamm bamm bamm),” “Olsen Olsen,” or even the titular track, aren’t bad, but they are also not as memorable or effecting in their execution—but the entire album can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, be as dramatic as two or three specific songs are.
But one could argue that the band has built a career out of that kind of musical theatricality—that it’s what they would go on to do with ( ), released worldwide in 2002—a high concept cycle of eight songs; or what they would continue to do with their emotional, enormously ambitious live show, often a mind boggling spectacle relying on scrims, projection, and elaborate lighting to accompany the music, taking it to another world all together.
Two decades after the album’s original release, and 18 years after that transformative moment on a dorm room floor in September 2001, Ágætis byrjun is an album that is completely representative of its time. It sounds, more or less, like 1999, and the remastered edition leaves much of the albums original aesthetics intact—in fact, there’s almost no discernable difference in the mix, unless my ears are deceiving me. It represents who the band were—what they had been working toward for the first five years of their existence, and gives a very small glimmer of what they would become in a relatively short amount of time.
It’s also representative of this time in my life—the juxtaposition of warm and cool autumn days on Clarke Drive, on a small liberal arts campus in Dubuque, Iowa. The friends that I had those first few weeks of college, during your first year, when you try extremely hard to make friends, and only some of them stick; friends I made during that first year, that I would only go on to lose much later on.
I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to feel about Sigur Rós in 2019—and despite the fact that I carried the band itself with me well into my mid-20s, and even into my 30th year, it has been a frustrating and strange time to be a ‘fan’ of Sigur Rós, given what they have, and haven’t, done in the last six years.
There are things you take with you through time—albums, books, et. al—and I’ve started to second guess if I’ve really taken Sigur Rós with me, or if it’s something that has remained partially in the past.
Something that I am still interested in, but not as passionate about as I once was.
Something that when I revisit, it only takes me back to very specific moments from what feels like a lifetime ago—fragments that you are uncertain how long you want to linger on them for, because, much like this music that meant so much to me at one point, it all becomes too much.
1- For the longest time, when I was around 18 or 19, I had a signature in my email that said: “I gave you hope, which became a disappointment. This is an alright start.” This was, according to the internet at the time, the translation of lyrics in the titular track on the album—it was self aware, because Von translates to “hope,” and the little talked about Von remix album had a title that translated to “disappointment.” Commonly, though, this album now is referred to as “A Good Beginning.”
2- I have to be careful with what I say here, but saying she and I ‘fell out of touch’ is kind of truncating a much longer and difficult to articulate exchange. We hadn’t talked in a very, very long time, but I, apparently, much to my own surprise, still, at one time within the last three or so years, showed up in her Facebook newsfeed. She read an essay I had written that was online, back when I was still a writer for the Southern Minnesota Scene magazine—the essay was about the moment I stopped believing in God, and it mentioned her in it, because she was, at the end of the day, a rather religious/spiritual/et. al kind of girl. She chided me in a Facebook message for both mentioning her, as well as telling me that there were progressive Catholic churches in the Twin Cities that I should be more aware of.
3- This is just super petty and I didn’t want to put it into what already was a 3,000 word essay/review/whatever, but I had a hell of a time even getting a copy of this reissue, and because of how difficult and irritating it was, I almost didn’t want to write about it. I pre-ordered it directly (in the spring) from the band’s website (the orders were being fulfilled through the Warner Brothers Records online store though (I guess they own the rights to this album?) The album itself, in both iterations (the standard edition and the lavish reissue) were delayed in production due to flaws with the vinyl mastering; however, I received an email when it was set to be released saying there’d be a delay because the Warner Brothers online store was moving goods to another warehouse. They were not able to say how long of a delay there would be, and it took about two weeks of reaching out to someone with the band itself, as well as various customer service email addresses, to get in touch with someone who would cancel my order, so I could place the order elsewhere, and receive the record without hassle.
4- I always struggle to shoehorn in information about the ‘extras’ with reissues because I spend so much time on my memories with the album in question, I don’t ever really get to talking about, like, demo version that are included or whatever. Truthfully, I think you have to be a really big Sigur Rós fan to want to hear the extras that are included on this reissue—I mean the live set from 1999 is meant for everyone, but by the time you get to the third disc in the CD edition, it’s really for longtime, completest fans only. Also, for what it’s worth, the packaging for the standard editions is pretty disappointing—specifically the standard, 2xLP edition.
5- This is a very long, complicated story but I’ll try to figure out an easier way to explain. Wendy was a prospective student touring Clarke College during my first year in college. She was looking at the theatre department, and I was asked to show her around. She was staying on campus overnight, and bunking with a girl named Meghan, who I had become acquaintances with during the first few weeks of school. I guess they were gossiping about what a dreamboat I was, or something, and hatched a plan to come over to my room and ask to borrow a movie—a VHS of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000.” We exchanged email addresses, and then stayed in touch sporadically until 2004, when our dynamic began to shift.
6- It seems worth mentioning that on the band’s follow up, ( ), the lyrics are phonetically sung in a ‘made up’ language called Hopelandic, making the band even more self-aware and idiosyncratic.