Monday, May 17, 2010

Listening Session: Jonsi, Go

I’ve got a problem with most new music: it all sounds inconsequential. There’s very little sense of urgency and emotional involvement on the part of the band. Even critically acclaimed bands sound like self-involved craftsmen who are dazzled by their own cleverness (e.g., I mean you, Grizzly Bear!) Sometimes listeners fall under their spell. But in the end, who’s actually moved by these bands?

Thank god there are a few exceptions to this wave of banality. Sigur Ros is a band that wants to move you. They want to take you to a higher plane. Each song is a hymn. Sometimes they fail, but when they succeed, they’re one of the few bands that will deliver that ecstatic moment. People have been known to cry at Sigur Ros concerts. I’ve had out-of-body experiences listening to their music, where my consciousness or soul seems to disengage with my physical being and intermingle directly with the music. It’s hard to explain.

If you’ve seen the documentary film Heima, it’s clear the band members are good in the highest moral sense. The documentary follows the band performing a series of free concerts across Iceland. There are touching scenes where they play in remote villages, outdoors on a chilly day or in the town hall, to mainly old people and families with children running around during the concert. (Sometimes, the band is able to captivate the children with their music.) They play acoustic versions of their songs mixed in with traditional Icelandic tunes in these venues. The effort the band takes to connect with rural Icelanders is brought home at the end of the film when you witness the typical, full-blown sonic assault of a Sigur Ros concert in Reykjavik. Both the pastoral, acoustic versions and the electronic, feedback-laden versions of their songs work, because their songs have good bones.

Jonsi is the front man with the castrato’s voice for Sigur Ros. According to Wikipedia, he’s openly gay and a vegetarian who prefers to eat only raw food. Why am I not surprised? I was surprised by his new solo album Go, which is the best new album I’ve heard in a long, long time. Go shares some similarities with Sigur Ros albums in the use of heavy orchestration and dense arrangements. But in spirit it’s a departure from Sigur Ros albums. The comparison that comes to mind is of Baroque composers who wrote religious song-cycles for religious occasions and secular song-cycles for secular occasions. Go sounds like a secular work; it features shorter, more direct songs (four or five minutes instead of eight to ten minutes), faster rhythms, and a lighter feel than a Sigur Ros album. There are no weak songs on the album. Despite its “secular” spirit, the album is filled with beautiful moments. This guy just can’t help it.

(A word about the sound quality: Sigur Ros albums are among the most sonically impressive records produced these days. Whereas a lot of contemporary albums are loud and compressed with the intent of being noticed and end up delivering an approximation of music, Sigur Ros albums possess a startling clarity in sound. Jonsi's album is no different. These guys care.)

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