in pop music, a little mystification can be a dangerous thing. prince found that out when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, provoking endless merriment about the artist-formerly-known-as.
sigur ros has already done the unpronounceable, with its breakthrough album agaetis byrjun. it has now moved on to the unsayable, and the invisible. the title of its new disc is a pair of parentheses, die-cut into an otherwise featureless cover. there are no song titles or other text.
the precedents for this kind of erasure aren't favourable, the most obvious being the black album from spinal tap. but unlike prince, and the amusing yobs in rob reiner's satiric film, sigur ros doesn't try to generate a fog of mystery around songs about sniffing the glove or shaking your booty. this icelandic quartet aims for higher things. its slow repetitive pieces suggest the mysterious orderly transit of the galaxies, if not the mood music from god's own listening room.
the structure of the eight pieces is as predictable as a lutheran chorale. each is a set of minimal variations on a short hymn-like chord progression, which typically builds to a large climax before subsiding into something like its original form. a similar procedure appears in henryk gorecki's crossover hit the symphony of sorrowful songs,as well as in pop baroque numbers such as pachelbel's famous canon. but none of these classical forerunners have sigur ros's skill with, or interest in, sounds that have transcendence coded right into them.
jon thor birgisson's mewing asexual voice and bowed guitar don't seem to belong to this world. they float like angelic vapours over the band's saturated atmospheres. like john tavener, sigur ros has figured out that you can wring a lot of profundity from a few widely spaced sustained tones. otherwise, the clich■ that god prefers luminous orchestral textures holds firm.
birgisson's incantatory lyrics, in a made-up language called hopelandish, mean whatever you think they do. an english ear picks up devotional phrases such as "you sigh," and "you rise up." whether this is about becoming your own best friend or embracing sweet baby jesus is up to you. sigur ros is a perfectly ecumenical band.
the most interesting track is the seventh, though not because it's the only one that approximates a verse-chorus form. uniquely, it suggests a journey of some drama and tension, unlike the near-static hymns of arrival that fill up the rest of the album. the least appealing is the third track, which plods along like a monks' processional as imagined by steven spielberg. the distance between sacred pop and pious humbug is short, but sigur ros manages to stay mainly on the side of the angels.