Sigur Ros ( )
Despite massive odds against them for all sorts of superficial reasons, Sigur Ros and their album ( ) has become one of the most important soundtracks of my life.
I Should Hate This Band
I should despise Sigur Ros. You might or might not have heard of them before because they're from Iceland. The album I'm going to talk about today is sung entirely in a fake made-up language that the band called "Hopelandic." The album doesn't have a name other than a set of parentheses, and the song titles are also non-existent going by Untitled #1 through Untitled #8.
Strike one. Strike two. Strike three.
Seriously, who the hell do you think you are writing an album with no name in a fake made-up language? I get "artistic license," but seriously, just shut up. Nobody can get away with this level of bullshit, right? I admit I had that thought at times, but damn it if I didn’t fall in love with it.
I love artists and I love art, obviously. I am very forgiving of some of the egotism and pretentiousness that goes along with being an artist. Take Quentin Tarantino for example. He is a phenomenal artist and he's pretty much totally obnoxious because he knows how good he is. If you hear some interviews with him, you might feel like you’re going to hate his work, but it’s just part of the package. For some artists, maybe it takes that level of ego to put yourself out there. As long as the art is worth it, we go along with it.
Before you get to the point of appreciating any art, there's a bit of a bargain you have to make. Sometimes you'll give an artist the leeway only to find out it wasn't worth it, at least for you. I don't want to name names, so I won't, but I'm sure you've given someone that leeway before, only to be disappointed. I know I have.
I had trouble getting over the hump with Sigur Ros. Not only are they a band that didn't name their album or songs while singing in a fake language, but these songs also pushed past seven, eight, and 12 minutes in length. Strike four!
I initially bought the parentheses album because I thought I was supposed to. One of my lunchtime treks to my favorite indie music store, Ultrasound in Mentor, included a purchase of this record. I worked for a ginormous corporation, which was soul-sucking, but it meant I had money to buy lots of CDs at least a couple times per month. I probably bought it in a batch of three or more CDs, which I frequently did in those days. And who knows how long it took me to actually listen to it. CDs would pile up occasionally, especially when I fell in love with one. It didn’t matter. I had time and those discs sitting there waiting were like money in the bank to me. I don’t remember the first time I listened to Sigur Ros, but I know it didn’t grab me and I put it away for a long time.
Sigur Ros is not the kind of band that makes singles. They don't produce songs you can dance to. I don't remember listening to this album for the first time, but I do remember all the reasons I put it down. Most of them are in the first paragraph. I didn't think I was too cool for anything at the point that I bought this album in the early 2000s, but I also think I likely slotted it with the "too cool for school" art releases that Pitchfork seems to cream their shorts over every year just because they're wholly inaccessible.
Pitchfork named parentheses as the 29th of the 50 best albums of 2002. It ended up being 135th out of 200 in the 2000s. See what I mean?
All I know for sure is that somehow, someway, from the time I bought that album in 2002 or 2003, through a long lull sitting on the shelf, this inaccessible art-rock record became one of the most important albums of my life by April 9th, 2010.
That kids is what we call a teaser. The band is Sigur Ros and the album is parentheses. It is today's Album of Record.
I Almost Skipped the Sigur Ros Show Because the Browns Sucked
Before we go back to 2010, like I frequently do, I want to talk about an experience seeing the band live. I had the tickets and if my wife and I didn't have a babysitter, we might not have gone to the show.
That would have been a mistake and long before COVID, I was a convert to the philosophy that you "always go to the show." I don't know the first person who ever said that, but it's a good default when it comes to music. You never know what you might see. You never know what you might miss. You never know when you might not be able to go again. Lessons learned the hard way.
This particular Sunday evening, I had finished writing up a painful Cleveland Browns loss for my sports website, WaitingForNextYear. Many of the readers will know about it, but back when people read articles on the internet, there were sports blogs. I had a pretty good one that I contributed to with my friends. A good blog for bad teams. I wrote about the Cleveland Browns not only losing to the team that used to be the Browns, the Baltimore Ravens. I wrote specifically about how boring it was as an entertainment venture.
The Browns were up six nothing in the first half and went on to lose 14-6 while allowing their never-was quarterback Brandon Weeden to get sacked five times. The Browns' bad-handed receiver Greg Little kept dropping everything. That's about all the sports analysis you need to know to know that I was a miserable bastard that day. I was so miserable, in fact, that I didn't feel like driving down to Cleveland from the suburbs to see Sigur Ros at an outdoor pavilion called Nautica that overlooks the city skyline.
But we did go, and it was a near-religious experience for me. It was an awakening of sorts too. I've kept doing the sports website, and I've continued to do the sports podcast, but it really put sports in perspective as an entertainment product. I cared so much about the Browns, but they consistently delivered nothing more than misery. Even on the worst days at concerts, I was entertained. The highs from music are just as high as they are in sports, but the lows are essentially never there.
As an aside, I followed this show up a couple months later with a solo expedition to Pittsburgh on Sunday, December 22, 2013 to see a band called Mansions after the Browns dropped to 4-11, losing 24-13 to the Jets. It was a phenomenal decision. Maybe someday I'll get into Mansions, but not today. Back to Sigur Ros.
Prior to Sunday, September 15th, 2013, I had considered these two things - sports and music - in very different buckets. Only that day did I realize when the Browns left me thirsty as hell that drinking from the music bucket could quench my thirst, and do so more reliably.
These thirst metaphors aren't really working for me. What I'm trying to say is that the Sigur Ros show that Sunday was beyond special. If you're the kind of person to consider art your religion, then seeing Sigur Ros live was a religious experience. But I don't know if I would have considered seeing music a religious experience until I saw them live with my own eyes and ears.
This is a photo of Nautica when we saw Chvrches open up for Death Cab for Cutie.
Sigur Ros at Nautica
You might have a venue like Nautica in your town. Here in Cleveland, it's become a really special place to see music. When I was in my teenage years, it was essentially a big concrete parking lot, with some bleachers around the outside and a stage with the city skyline and river in the backdrop. There's a backdrop sheet on the stage, but it's like a giant window screen so you can see through it and if you're ever going to find the city skyline of Cleveland attractive like a local would, this venue delivers the proper vista. It was pretty awesome in those days, but it really took a jump when they added a canopy roof to the venue in 2003. Now, you could safely go to an outdoor show into the Cleveland autumn without worrying too much about getting wet or beaten down by the sun. Both those weather outcomes, along with snow, are possibilities during a Cleveland fall.
That September evening, my wife and I went to the show in light jackets because the weather was going to get down into the 50s. By the time you get to the fall in Cleveland, 50-degree weather feels cool. In spring, you've been so beaten down by lake effect snow and wintry mixes that people wear shorts and tank tops in 50-degree weather. After a hot summer, 50 feels cold. You’re human. You get it. I digress.
This show had a real fall feel to it and it contributed to the vibe in downtown Cleveland as Sigur Ros took the stage. It was almost too much to take in. There were overhead lights that looked like stars. There were various freestanding light fixtures with individual light bulbs in them all over the stage. In the various musical stations there seemed to be an impossible number of musical toys to accent the complex sounds of the band's ethereal post-rock music.
It seems criminal at this point that I would talk about Sigur Ros without discussing any of the band members, particularly the voice of the band Jonsi. He takes the stage in the center with a faux-hawk and a sheepish half-smile. He plays a Les Paul on stage, which is fine, but for people my age, a Les Paul is synonymous with Slash from Guns N' Roses. Jonsi plays the Les Paul very differently than the riff on Sweet Child O' Mine.
In fact, one of the most striking things about watching Jonsi play guitar and sing is how he sometimes uses a violin bow on his guitar. Seriously, google it and watch the Youtube video of him goofing off with sounds for the pedal maker TC Electronics. If you own an electric guitar, you're going to want to buy a bow just to mess around with it.
The sounds he gets from a combination of a guitar, a bow, a reverb, and probably a delay pedal are ethereal, orchestral, cinematic, and about as dramatic as you can possibly imagine. When you listen to Sigur Ros on their recordings you might think it's a studio creation at least to some degree, but damn it if those same sounds aren't washing over you all concert long. I've got chills just thinking about it right now.
The live show is intense, insane, full of dramatic highs and lows. When the band gets quiet, it's insane how quiet they can get. And this Sigur Ros audience in Cleveland is one of the least Cleveland audiences I can ever remember.
At some point, I'll probably hit this point three or four different times, but Cleveland tends to be a party music scene even when the bands don't have that type of vibe. Some of the more precious bands who want to go for emotional stage moments have been borderline disgusted with some drunken Cleveland crowds that have failed to match the dynamics of the performers on the stage at a given show. Without going deep on this, I can think of two major examples.
Tool were in their encore at the Agora Theater and a Cleveland stage diver decided to run up to Maynard and put his arm around the singer while he was screaming about everyone needing to "learn to swim" in Los Angeles. Maynard was disgusted, pushed the fan, tossed his mic down, the band finished the song without their singer, and ended the show. It was the encore, but still, it wasn't good.
Time number two, Manchester Orchestra and lead singer Andy Hull were trying to bring the energy down a bit at the Beachland Ballroom during the Simple Math tour and despite his beckoning the audience to play along, there were way too many drunken "WOOOOOOS" going on, even after he asked nicely.
Damn it, I can't stop thinking about examples. Last one. Cloud Nothings -- a Cleveland band who made it nationally -- are playing Mahall's in Lakewood Ohio and some drunk guy not only takes the stage while the band is jamming on an instrumental section, he starts screaming into the microphone like he's a member of the band as if his additions to the music are warranted. They weren't. I believe the guitarist or bass player kicked him in the back and he flew off the stage. Needless to say, Cleveland crowds aren't always the best audiences.
So, I was mildly shocked at how well this Sigur Ros audience played along. The band played only two songs from the parentheses album, but as they are wont to do, they ended with Untitled #8 which eventually got the name Popplagio. It is nearly 12 minutes long on the album. It's a meditation. It's a lullaby. It crescendos into one of the most powerful songs you've ever heard in your entire life. When you hear it, it washes over you with its scarcity. The band leaves spaces early in the song, only to fill them at the end with a huge cacophony of distorted guitars and melodic wailing. It finishes in a strobe-light-washed scene with spastic drums pounding to a triumphant and satisfying conclusion. There are songs that capture a whole lot of life in them, and this is one of them.
It is the kind of song that once you hear it, it seems all-powerful. You're convinced that it can melt any audience anywhere in the world at any time. I am convinced of it.
Mostly because I became convinced much later by a friend after casting this band aside for a long time. Remember I owned this album but left it mostly unlistened for the longest time.
So, how did this become one of the most important albums of my lifetime? And what is it about my life that pushed this album to those heights among all the music I ever listened to?
Let me tell you about it.
The opening track to the parentheses album Untitled #1 when I originally heard it, but would eventually come to be known as Vaka was the other ( ) song that Sigur Ros played the night my wife and I saw them. It couldn't have been more perfect for us personally.
When I got back to listening to Sigur Ros’ ( ) album I wasn't married yet. Eventually, I would get married in 2006. My wife got pregnant with our first sometime in 2009 and when it came time to figure out our "plan" for bringing the kid into the world, I instantly started thinking about music. Sure, I first had to let the doctor know that I would not be cutting the umbilical cord. Why? I believe my exact words were, “I have zero qualification to do anything like that.” Like most things in a hospital, I figured it should be left to medical professionals. My qualifications were to talk to my wife, hold her hand and stay the hell out of the way while she and the hospital staff did the real work that day. So, yeah, I was focused on music.
Our first kid showed up on April 9, 2010 and like so many first-time moms, it was hard work. Labor lasted forever. The pushing was forever too. They eventually had to use a suction cup and other tools to get my son Ben into the world. All you non-parents out there, yes, they sometimes use a suction tool on a kid’s head to get them out. In hindsight, it's kind of funny, but because of their soft heads and the use of a suction tool, Ben had a cone-shaped head for the first month of his life. All that extra work also means extra chaos in the delivery room.
When they decide to use the tools, the status of the operation in the delivery room changes to something like a code red. We went from having four of us in the delivery room to having enough people for a five-on-five basketball game. And of course, the other stuff that men don't want to hear about and plenty of women know about first-hand, there's all kinds of damage to women from giving birth. I never imagined someone would use the word "tearing" and my wife in the same sentence, but there we were. Without getting into the really gory details, I'm a new dad and my lifetime priorities have been literally doubled in a matter of minutes and I'm now like a wishbone being pulled apart.
My newborn son Ben is over on a table being weighed and cared for by nurses. My wife is bleeding incessantly and this South African alpha male doctor is working with a feverish intensity that was making me nervous. Dude was like a cool fighter pilot all day, but there was an urgency to him now. It was probably only about five seconds, but it felt like five minutes while I literally just stood in between the bed where my wife was and the table where my new son was and couldn't figure out where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do. Thankfully my wife asked me something about the boy, so it caused me to take the steps over to him so I could report back to her.
The short version of the story is that the doctor stopped my wife from bleeding incessantly and got her stitched up. Our baby boy got a nice little hat to cover his suction cup damaged scalp and was wrapped up in a blanket. I don't know how long it took, but things were finally ok. My wife got to have some skin-on-skin time with the boy and I had a chance to press play on the speaker I brought and the opening dirge of Vaka began.
Next came the piano to reinforce the hymn-like passage. Then come the warbling atmospherics in another layer. One minute into the song and the world felt better. It was the calm after the storm. Two minutes in and it's still calm. It's a lullaby. It's literally soothing in the room even before Jonsi adds his soft, delicate vocals. As the song builds, he goes into his patented falsetto as he harmonizes with himself. The song peaks in the fifth minute, but it never hits you over the head. It winds down with a piano whispering you back to sleep.
This is the first song my son ever heard in his life in the wide-open world. I don't remember how I came to pick that album, but it couldn't have been more perfect in the moment. And yes, by the time we got to Popplagio, we probably didn't need to rock that hard or hit that frenzied emotional peak, but that's alright. The album has its own journey and just because it's mostly perfect doesn't mean that every single moment will match up like Dark Side of the Moon to The Wizard of Oz.
I'm sure everyone melted a bit when Sigur Ros played that live in 2013 in Cleveland, but I don't think anyone more than my wife and me standing together in the crowd hearing it live for the first time. I'm guessing you've got all sorts of your own stories about how different musicians and albums and songs are the soundtracks of your life. For me, many of those moments and periods are kind of vague and squishy.
Like Aenima by Tool was my favorite album as I was becoming a senior in high school. It was my favorite album as I was applying to college. It defines a larger period of my life and helps me define the prevailing feelings and attitudes I had during that time. It's hard for me to tie Aenima to a singular moment. I can tie Sigur Ros to this singular moment because it was a conscious choice. It was part of my plan like choosing a song for your first dance at your wedding. What's odd is that I don't have more of these moments that I created intentionally. Then again, what's the moment in your life where it makes sense to play Eulogy or Stinkfist? Forget it. Don't answer that.
It makes me wonder if other people do create these musical associations and plan perfect songs and albums for specific events.
And what about those people who are only fans of one artist? I find fans of Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews Band sometimes are really only fans of that one artist. Do they associate moments of their life with these songs? Can they accomplish this with a limited number of songs?
Questions without answers today.
And to think that I almost let a Browns game bring me down too much to want to leave the house and go to the show. Music over sports every time. All the time. And always go to the show. Even a bad time at a concert is a better time than most. Sports are high ceiling with a low floor. Music is a high ceiling with a much higher floor than sports.