in the near-decade since their 1999 breakthrough ágætis byrjun, iceland's sigur rós have made pathos their playground. for them, "little" is scarcely an option: instead, they've built a career out of conjuring god-sized renderings of sorrow, fragility, and teary joy, rarely on a scale anything less than epic. they've done this instinctively and automatically, sometimes to the detriment of their compositions, leaving the impression that the songs are secondary vessels for spectacle. in the sense that they're less concerned with intellectual honesty than they are with the overall visceral impact of the thing they're creating, sigur rós are the michael bays of melodrama.
that, of course, is no bad thing-- especially not for a band that does spectacle so well-- but it does invite a problematic dynamic when it comes to the long haul, one wherein they run the very real risk of piling on ever-more ludicrously for the sake of justifying their existence. that's why, after four full-lengths and a string of eps that saw them bloat their sensory cavalcade of strings, horns, cavernously reverberated guitars, and sweetly vocals to heaven-scraping levels of pomp, last month's single "gobbledigook" came as a refreshing and shockingly grounded new direction. gone were the celestial delays and cloud-parting refrains; in their place, a tangle of acoustic guitars, thumping percussion, and rabid vocals. not only did it sound like sigur rós doing animal collective (!), it sounded like a way out.
and certainly, about half of með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (translation: "with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly") constitutes a much-needed change of direction for sigur rós. building on the gains made from 2005's transitional takk, they deliver plenty of moments where they sound more spirited, looser, almost playful. the unifying element in these instances is brevity; from the tumbling, modest solo acoustic ballad "illgresi" to the celebratory "við spilum endalaust", some of the band's best songs come when they consciously confine themselves to the pop format. you get the feeling that, on a past album, they might have let "góðan daginn"'s acoustic guitar arpeggios and chiming bell tones waft around interminably. similarly, one of the album's highlights is a major key summer song called "inní mér syngur vitleysingur" which manages to squeeze some of the band's hallmarks (parading horns, glockenspiels, and a stunning teardown and subsequent buildup) into a positively economical four minutes. the compression generally serves them well, forcing them to make choices they might not otherwise confront when there's 10 minutes of real estate to occupy.
með suð was produced by flood (u2, pj harvey, nine inch nails) and recorded, variously, in new york, london, reykjavik, and havana, a sure sign of a conscious attempt to shake up their methodology. if there's anything disappointing, it's that sigur rós weren't more militant about affecting that change. while the album's greatest triumph is its relative leanness, two songs still threaten the nine-minute mark. the first is the conflicting "festival", which features singer jonsi birgisson doing his quavering choirboy routine over a churchly organ for an interminable four and a half minutes before swelling into an instrumental eruption on par with sigur rós' finest ever. it's so arresting and muscular on its own that it hardly needs the first bit to introduce it; that the band chose needlessly to build it into a beast feels a bit like old habits dying hard. far more unforgivable is the comically overstuffed "ára bátur", which is a bet-hedging and nerveless exercise that bridges another aimless solo piano movement with a culminating swell so over-the-top that andrew lloyd webber himself would have deemed it a little much. that the album's official bio proudly touts the 90-strong recording (which boasts both the london sinfonietta and the london oratory boys' choir) as "the largest musical undertaking of the band's career"-- and that it's easily the worst thing on here-- speaks volumes of a different kind.
these safe, pandering choices otherwise mar what could have been a game-changing evolution. instead, með suð promisingly announces itself as a sunny, happy, easily digestible record before relapsing into old school, heavy-bloat, high-calorie sigur rós. ultimately, there are too many wonderful moments here to deem it anything less than a beautiful record, but armchair producers might find themselves similarly wishing for less fat. how do you say "less is more" in hopelandic? i worry we'll never know.