Review Summary: Twinkle, twinkle... blah blah blah.
For the longest time, I didn't know how to write about Valtari
; I would hazard a guess that I'm still going to struggle. At this point in Sigur Rós' career, we know a lot before we even listen. We know that, at some juncture, we will wake (either literally or figuratively) to find ourselves surrounded by a wall of strings and pianos, with Jónsi Birgisson's angelic falsetto stirring somewhere above or below. We know that we won't be engaging in any sing-alongs, barring crude interpretations of the invented language Hopelandic ("Untitled 1"'s 'she sat alone', I recall). And we know we will emerge, at the end of it all, in a relaxed but somewhat intoxicated frame of mind.
And so the question, on discovering Valtari
's decidedly ambient nature - light to say the least on percussion, and meandering through tremolos rather aimlessly at points - seems to be: what do we say when that's all there is to say? Valtari
is in some ways a brave record, for its emptiness and the way it is content to just move from one haunting melody to another, slightly familiar one. But in the context of Sigur Rós' discography, what can it do to counter ( )
, an album which seems like Valtari
with far more actual ideas? While "Untitled 3"'s piano states its case emotionally, even Valtari
's best track, "Varúð", just sits and listens stoically.
There are factors to Valtari
that separate it sonically, albeit by inches as opposed to miles. To say that the brakes are on in the aftermath of Jónsi's hyperactive Go
would be an understatement of the highest order, and tracks like "Ekki múkk" feel like some of the coldest material Sigur Rós have ever recorded. And the comparative looseness of this album is refreshing; it floats through a heavy atmosphere with a beauty reminiscent of the band's best moments, sounding both helpless and commanding in the same moment. That's something Sigur Rós have unequivocally mastered.
And yet, and yet, and yet... something is missing. What exactly is the title-track? In the realm of Sigur Rós, it's akin to breathing plain fresh air: in some contexts, refreshing, but in others, just... there. And beautifully there, sure, these chords and these twinkles, but so what? In the midst of "Varúð"'s heavenly climax, we're ready to declare Valtari
an unmitigated success, so my question is this: where does it all disappear to? A record of crescendos like that one would grate far more than Valtari
does, but that doesn't make "songs" like "Varðeldur" anything more than a series of nice-sounding drones.
Sigur Rós are capable of making us feel chills, and they're capable of making us feel calm. Would we be happy with Valtari
2, next time out? There is brilliance in this album, for sure, in the way it bides its time and, well, it certainly doesn't rush to any conclusions. But the way it's constructed doesn't make it feel sorrowful or desperate like Stars of the Lid's incredible Refinement of the Decline
. It has a few absolutely stunning moments, and a lot of absent ones. Most of these passages don't stab anywhere close to the heart, let alone evoke the sort of passion this band is capable of. I can be okay with that - I just can't be much more.