Sigur Rós, Unborn

Symphonic Icelanders

I was having a rough week when I saw Sigur Rós play at the Opera House. But when Abe Riesman comes upon rough times, there’s no better prescription than Sigur Rós.

But why? There’s plenty of other chill-out music out there, and a lot of it has more elaborate symphonics, more accomplished musicianship, and lyrics in a language that’s comprehensible to me. So what is the Sigur Rós mystique? It became obvious to me at their show on the 15th. Their music is the sonic equivalent of going into the womb.

I first heard the band’s 1999 breakthrough, “Agaetis Byrjun,” a few months after 9/11, and it was a rare moment of utter entrancement. None of the words were in English, but the 10-minute epics of eerie falsetto and guitars-played-like-cellos brought me some kind of orgasmic peace. Since then, whenever life ceases to make sense, I seek out the Icelandic quintet and turn to the last three tracks on “Agaetis Byrjun” for solace.

I had never seen the band before, and given the fact that most people picture non-Björk Icelanders to be bearded wanderers of the fjördlands, I wasn’t prepared for the fact that frontman Jónsi þor Birgisson is actually a skinny, clean-shaven little guy with a silly, pomade-induced flip in his bangs. But that youthful aspect was what gave him such gravity.

He spent the whole show singing with eyes closed, and when he wasn’t huddled over his guitar with an E-Bow, he stood straight up and clenched his little hands like a child, squealing out meditative old standards like “Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása” and stunning new post-rockers like “Saeglópur.” He’s like the most earnest third-grader you’ve ever seen sing a Disney song at the talent show.

Youth, especially infancy, was a pervading theme of the show. Images of baby doll faces, toys, and gestating fetuses were projected on a screen behind the band. These simple sights were accompanied by relatively simple sounds—competent drumming and lots of tinkering around with xylophones and such—and I wasn’t exactly moved to a transcendent state of ecstasy. But that’s the point.

When you’re in the womb, all you need to hear is a slow thumping and the muffled soundtrack of a language you can’t understand yet. The band has even invented a funny little way to put us all into that irretrievable state of nature. They write a bunch of their songs in “Hopelandish,” a nonsense language that’s intended to allow the listener to interpret the lyrics however he or she so desires.

They closed the set out with an old standard from Hopeland, “Untitled #9—Popplagio (Pop Song).” It begins with a sweet, rolling guitar strain, but eventually collapses into cacophonous entropy. I’m not a big fan of the song, but it reminded me of the problem about the womb—eventually, the placenta breaks, and you’re out on your own. Horrifying.

The show wasn’t really life-altering, but it did what Sigur Rós always does for me—makes me feel as though I’m lolling around in that amniotic fluid, inhabiting a place and time before girlfriends and bombing campaigns: mindless, carefree, and hypnotized by the melodies of what’s to come.

—Staff writer Abe J. Riesman can be reached at riesman@fas.harvard.edu