I’m going to turn back the dial, and set it on ambient for the year 1999. I’m recovering from the never-ending sinus cold, which drifts in and out of my life, based on how severely I abuse my recovery time – i.e. how much extracurricular fun I try to squeeze in the spaces in between. So downtempo and old fashioned seems the best way to go. Plus, I haven’t posted for a few days, so easing-in with some comfort-tunes also feels right.
I remember first hearing Sigur Rós’ “Svefn-g-englar” many years ago at a Tower Records on Market Street in San Francisco. I was instantly captivated by its slow burn ease, as were many others. But no one could tell me what I was listening to. Ironic, since I was in a record store, and it was playing over their sound system. An employee said it was on a mixtape from one of their guys, but he was on break, didn’t know where he was, etc. Whatever. Such was the case.
Since this was all pre-Internet, or fledgling internet – not sure of its actual status – there wasn’t a lot of info to go on. So I conveniently forgot about it until I moved to Los Angeles four or five years later, and heard it in a friend’s car. He knew who and what it was. And consequently, at that point, so did I.
Sometimes the good stuff takes its own sweet time to find you … or for you to find it.
So enough of my long-winded backstory. I’ve been listening to Sigur Rós for the better part of this Wednesday, and it just seems the right way to go. And “Svefn-g-englar” is the most logical choice, due to said backstory. Plus, it’s a damn great song, even when I can’t understand a lyrical word, nor pronounce the song’s name, due to it all being rendered in Icelandic. But again, it’s all good, because in the end, rather than detract, it contributes to the overall intangible beauty of this selection.
According to the Sigur Rós wiki, “Svefn-g-englar” is an Icelandic pun that translates to “sleepwalkers” or “sleep angels” or “sleepwalk angels.” Today’s the first day I chose to take notice of that, because I was never all that interested in learning their translations. I typically prefer the exotic mystery of not knowing, over the rigid attachment of arbitrary meaning, particularly when it comes to the arts. Interpretation free of influence is always better. But in saying all that, now that I know the translation, I think it’s a rather fitting title. Not to mention, I’ve also had the last decade and a half to appreciate the music on its own terms. So it doesn’t really matter how it’s translated or what it means.
Anyway, if you know Sigur Rós, then chances are you know this selection intimately. If not, “Svefn-g-englar” is a classic entry in their unique catalogue. It’s a slow burn at 10 minutes, taking its time, easing you gently into its dream-walking lullaby. It’s one of the quietest builds I can think of. And when it peaks, there’s a welcome restraint, wrapped in a warm wave of orchestrated reverberation, crafted by frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s cello bowed guitarwork. As I’ve mentioned, lyrically it’s all in Icelandic. I’m sure there’s plenty of translations out there on the internet. But I think I’ll stick with the abstract nature of not knowing, and just enjoy Jónsi’s signature falsetto rendition, practically making his voice an instrument all its own.
I’ll leave it at that. Enjoy this classic from Sigur Rós.
“Svefn-g-englar” from the 1999 album “Ágætis byrjun.”
And here’s the music video for “Svefn-g-englar.” It’s directed by August Jacobsson, and features the Perlan theatre group, which is an Icelandic acting troupe comprised of men and women with Down syndrome.
Lastly, I figure this is as good a place as any to put this incredible live performance from last year at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It features Sigur Rós performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra for the 1st half, and the band on their own for the 2nd. They did three shows in total, of which I saw the third one. And yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds. Pitchfork streamed one of the nights live, with proper camerawork and editing, and subsequently remastered and released it on YouTube. Here’s the embed.