by Michael Goldberg
Monday, November 11, 2002
Finally Grokking Sigur Rós
A trip to Iceland reveals secrets of the ages
Reykjavik, Iceland The guys were shoveling snow when I arrived at the compound, just outside Reykjavik. It had been a grueling journey and then some. Normally a flight from San Francisco to Iceland takes 19 hours, but our pilot got distracted by the new Sigur Rós album that he had cranked in the cockpit, and decided to take the long way around the pole so he could give it another half dozen spins. Why did those damn Icelandic rockers have to make such a good album? It was almost 26 hours before we finally landed.
Actually, that may have been a blessing in disguise. There's nothing like listening to an album over and over to really get it under your skin, for it to seep into your soul, for it to massage your heart, seduce.... Anyway. By the time I staggered out of the plane into the cold, damp, misty air, I felt like I could honestly say, "Hey, I grok this Icelandic rock thing. Yo!" Or, as they say in Iceland when they are talking among intimate acquaintances, "Gimâtcha yawpötchnik!" (Translation: We grok!)
They handed me a shovel and said something in a language that I didn't understand. It reminded me that I couldn't understand anything that Jonsi Thor Birgisson sings on the group's new album, which, by the way, doesn't have a title (but which I've come to call "Binnööstra Ohamönik Rhúmanticamatch Oömpapa Oömpapa" because, well, just because). "Thor," as I quickly came to know him, mostly sings made-up words that don't mean anything but sound meaningful, and he sings them in a very intense and over-the-top dramatic way. Meaningful words that I don't understand, sung in a very meaningful way.
I had expected Thor to be kind of a pretentious guy, the kind of guy who quotes Dylan Thomas and Henry Blake (or is it William?) and various big thinkers whose names I can't remember, but he was anything but that. I mean, sure, his all-black outfit, including the wool cap that was pulled over his ears, had come from Diesel, and he wore a diamond-encrusted ring and black Prada elfin moccasins, and there was a cook and a housekeeper and a personal assistant and a translator and a chauffeur for the Jag and a guitar tuner and several others, all acting very busy in and around the compound, but so what? That's all surface stuff. Thor, as I would soon learn, is a deep, thoughtful and very spiritual guy. He told me one of his heroes was Beach Boy Mike Love. Gimâtcha yawpötchnik!
There are eight "songs" on the new, untitled album. None of the songs have titles either. You might think, as some do, that releasing an album with no title featuring songs with no titles is a pretentious thing to do. And, further, that including no credits of any kind on the album other than an URL www.sigur-ros.com that took me to an absolutely blank Web page, is what we call "trying too hard." I mean I even thought that at first. After all, Sigur Rós make Radiohead seem like conventional meat-and-potatoes heartland rockers. I mean, I even thought for a while that the whole thing had to be an elaborate put-on, staged by Metallica's roadies. Or maybe one of Axl Rose's paranoid plots to turn music lovers away from arty prog rock and toward bad hard rock. But that was before I got to Reykjavik and saw the guys in their own element, tossing back shot glass after shot glass of what I assumed was some kind of homegrown vodka. And shoveling snow.
Which reminds me. Yes, they handed me a shovel. We couldn't communicate. They either don't understand English or were pretending they didn't understand it. And I certainly couldn't make head or tail of the gibberish they were spewing, which just got more and more slurred as the day progressed and a pile of empty bottles accumulated.
So they were shoveling snow and they had this extra shovel that they wanted me to do something with, and I figured, hey, why not join in, become one of the guys, you know, like the fifth Beatle or something. If Murray the K could do it back in '64, why not I? So they were shoveling snow, I was shoveling snow, Thor was warbling incomprehensible nonsense and a herd of Icelandic seals (at least that's what I thought they were) were howling in the background, creating a sound not unlike that on some of the untitled tracks on Binnööstra Ohamönik Rhúmanticamatch Oömpapa Oömpapa.
And all at once I got it. All at once all the hours of flying, and the day spent freezing my ass off tromping around the compound suddenly seemed worth it. I experienced one of those blinding, exploding, lightbulb-like flashes. White. Nothingness. Pure energy. The universe. Peace. God. The euphoria that one can only get from truly understanding the message communicated from one of those small silver disks to my poor damaged eardrums.
Sure, you're thinking. He's finally gone totally blitzo out of his mind. He's making no sense at all. Maybe they slipped him some LSD or one too many bottles of whatever the band was imbibing. He probably didn't even go to Reykjavik. This is just some Philip K. Dick mindfuck.
And I know what you mean. Here, back in my office in America, looking at those unintelligible words I had scribbled in my notebook, I am drawing a total blank. What could I have been thinking? And does any of this relate to anything? Even after days staring at the www.sigur-ros.com Web page nothing!
So, as you listen to Sigur Rós' new album, as you let the dreamy, ethereal prog-rock drift around you, as you light a joint (or fill your glass with a certain clear but potent liquid) and some candles and some incense and really kind of get in the mood, think of me and the guys, shoveling white snow. Gimâtcha yawpötchnik!