Sigur Rós, “Ágætis Byrjun 20th Anniversary Edition”

Sigur Rós
Ágætis byrjun 20th Anniversary Edition

Housed in a gray linen box, with its famed fetus illustration all cozy and compact: there is no other way in which to experience the cool planes and distant shores of Ágætis byrjun, Sigur Rós’ two-decade-old breakthrough record. As with the steely classicist packaging of Joy Division albums at the start of their career, this twentieth anniversary box set of early icy interludes (including a lustrous but raw 1999 live performance at the Íslenska Óperan) and their quiet march toward something grander is the perfect match of music to its edifice. 

After the singularly dark display of their debut disc, Von, with its minor keys and moldy My Bloody Valentine imitations, the main Sigur Rós member, Jónsi Birgisson, sought to move beyond intimacy and duskiness to find something larger, but somehow lighter—something with density yet without weight, an airiness at one with his clarion falsetto. 

Jónsi found those richly transcendent tone poems in the songs of Ágætis byrjun and the production of Ken Thomas (Wire, The Sugarcubes, M83) and so crafted a cold, flighty, tactile answer to Pet Sounds with its horns and strings set to something equally melancholic, but not quite so innocent and smooth. You can all but feel the nails quietly scraping the blackboards of “Svefn-g-englar,” and the hard rhythmic thud of piano that strikes “Starálfur” like the hammer of a radium clock. 

For all this wide-scale envisioning and richness of sound and song, it is Birgisson’s jibber-jabber and made-up bits of Hopelandic language on torrid tracks such as “Olsen Olsen” that truly defines the album. Far from being wordless, Birgisson’s invented lingo acts as yet another clear, creaky layer—something as tactile as those hammered pianos and tinkling scratchy cymbals—transforming Ágætis byrjun into something indefinable, refined, and weirdly universal. Together with its rarities and live albums, this box set comes across like a daylong dream you won’t want to wake from. 


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