One of the more cringe-inducing moments in broadcast journalism hit the airwaves in early October, just as Sigur Rós was preparing a series of exclusive concerts to promote its latest creative leap out of the Icelandic dreamtime. Self-dubbed after the fact as “possibly the worst interview in the history of electronic media,” Luke Burbank’s sitdown with the band for NPR’s The Bryant Park Project was, thanks in large part to Burbank’s inept questioning, a near-total disaster of silence (the worst thing that can happen in radio), and was duly punctuated by frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s sarcastic dismissal of “hopelandic”— the once-hip stock term used to describe the nonsense quasi-Icelandic lyrics he often writes—as “f*cking bullsh*t.”
What usually gets lost over a dust-up like this is the humor, and Sigur Rós certainly have that in spades. In interviews, the bandmembers have never come across as musicians who take themselves too seriously—certainly not as seriously as most journalists take their music. The Sigur Rós sound has always been thought of as somehow exemplifying the dreary melancholy of living on an island in the middle of the North Atlantic—phrases like “quietly majestic,” “otherworldly” and “achingly forlorn” get bandied about—so it’s unfortunate that the band’s easygoing sense of creative freedom, whether on stage or in the studio, rarely gets an iota of recognition. In a mini-documentary about the making of their fourth album Takk, keyboardist Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson put it succinctly: “There is actually nothing genius about what we do, you know. There is nothing clever about Sigur Rós. It’s all very—what is the word for it? It’s all very spontaneous.”
Hvarf/Heim is, on the surface, a new Sigur Rós album, but it’s more of a history of the band’s slow-burning brand of spontaneity, as well as a companion to the full-length film Heima (At Home), which documents the foursome’s location-hopping free tour of Iceland, staged in the summer of 2006. Hvarf, meaning “disappeared” or “haven,” is the first of two discs, and features several studio outtakes, along with a rarity (“Hafsol,” re-recorded as a B-side to the Takk single “Hoppípolla”) and a recent, raucous version of the classic “Von,” from the band’s 1997 debut of the same name. Of the unreleased material, “Hljómalind” stands out written in 1999, the track was named for a mom-and-pop record shop in downtown Reykjavik, and channels So-era Peter Gabriel without the preening bombast, while “Í Gær” (“Yesterday”) emulates Pink Floyd-like build-and-release dynamics over a swirling Hammond B3 organ fugue. Sonic canvases like these, already familiar to the band’s devoted fanbase, show just how far these lads can stretch a simple three-chord progression.
Heim is the live portion of the set, and although the flawlessly recorded sound of these largely acoustic versions of past triumphs sometimes makes them feel a bit frigid, cuts like “Starálfur” showcase the elasticity and strength of Jónsi’s voice, which tended to get lost in the heavy