as incongruous sights go, it was up there with seeing kasabian doing swan lake. in 2000, when the relatively unknown sigur rós played all tomorrow’s parties, i saw the four unearthly icelandic pixies gaze through the dilapidated doorway of camber sands’ number one greasy spoon. they looked bewildered, and melted away, refusing to cross the threshold.
it’s an appropriate metaphor for their career thus far: proffering four albums of uncompromising, reverb-drenched, atmospheric soundscapes comprised of floaty guitars, orchestration and pianos, they’ve avoided crossing over into the grubby mainstream. and, in the process, become as quietly massive as one of those glaciers it’s mandatory to mention in every sigur rós review.
sure, very occasionally, they’ve appeared a little anaemic – my bloodless valentine, if you like – but they’ve always done beauty as brilliantly as their shimmering forebears the cocteau twins. it’s all tunes having the delicate elegance of finely wrought victorian music boxes one minute, and drifting into the epic sound of ursa major imploding the next. no wonder radiohead love them.
this album has moments to rival their best work (most notably ‘festival’, ‘fljótavík’ and ‘ára bátur’, which are like being force-fed clouds) but things have changed chez sigur rós. whether it’s the relentless perfectionism of their back catalogue, or all those years of being name-checked by coldplay, brad pitt and metallica, or perhaps they’ve just got out more, but they’re looser and exploring new musical territory.
thus the opener and recent download ‘gobbledigook’ is flaming lips’ ‘yeah yeah yeah song’ born aloft by la-las and handclaps; ‘inní mér syngur vitleysingur’ hitches the beatles’ ‘lady madonna’ piano to arcade fire’s beat; ‘illgresi’’s acoustic folk is uncharacteristically intimate and hence a joy. the fact that these songs never lapse into ‘that’s what i call icelandic indie hits vol 23’, is down to the unique way they channel these influences.
yet, there’s no suppressing the fact that, ironically, in loosening up and stretching their wings they’ve become a little more earthbound. where once they conjured up the sound of, um, glaciers drifting across the surface of the moon, occasionally here it lapses into the sound of a wheelie bin being dragged across hmv’s backyard; the worst culprit being ‘við spilum endalaust’ which is coldplay in piano-bothering ‘clocks’-mode.
even this false note cannot dispel the underlying spirited otherworldliness in their souls. they won’t be hanging out with the pigeon detectives in any greasy spoons for some while yet; thankfully it’s still geysers rather than geezers.