You don’t need me to tell you the new Sigur Rós album is breathtaking and almost alien in its beauty. No matter how you found out about its existence – when a new record was confirmed a year ago, when the first single ‘Blóðberg’ arrived earlier this week, when it was formally announced just yesterday, or right about now – the simple fact that it’s here should be enough to invoke all those sonic signifiers. What I do feel compelled to remind you is that ÁTTA is the band’s first proper album in a decade. They’ve still made their presence felt over the years, gracing us with an array of mixtapes, singles, anniversary releases, a solo album from Jónsi, and majestic live performances, all of which occasionally felt like glimpses of what lay on the horizon. Perhaps it’s not until you press play on ÁTTA that you realize just how much you’d missed the gravity and world-building that comes with a full-length Sigur Rós record, so unlike the shot of nostalgia that wears off after catching a snippet of their music on some film. The singular effect of their graceful melodies and ineffably expressive vocals felt like something you could always rely on but, naturally, never fully emulate.
Is that, rather than any meaningful stylistic progression, the real promise of this kind of return? To make something vital in its familiarity, that still no band out there can even come close to producing? As they tell it, when multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson – who left the group in 2012 and has since rejoined the lineup – visited Jónsi in LA, there was no plan to start laying down a new album; of course it kind of floated out of the ether. There were things on their mind, though. “We’re always thinking about climate change, doom-scrolling and going to hell,” Jonsí said in press materials, and “the world felt a bit bleak making this album.” Sveinsson added: “After COVID and everything, people just need something nice.” Words have always felt a little powerless when it comes to Sigur Rós’ music, so sure: nice.
If the album turned out to be anything other than stupendously pretty, fans could justifiably take it as a sign that we really are living in end times. Again, I don’t need to tell you that it is invariably pretty. Those craving the gnarled immediacy of 2013’s Kveikur, though, might be surprised that the band is back to being more patient and elusive with their grandeur. That’s not to say the songs on ÁTTA are formless or monotonous, but it’s best experienced as a single lush, malleable piece, one that’s subtly surprising for how it earns and dispenses with drama. After opener ‘Glóð’ unspools in glorious fashion, we get ‘Blóðberg’, the second longest track on the album, which plays out as an intimate dance between Jonsí’s tender vocals and the grand orchestration from the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Robert Ames. As reminiscent as it is of their classic albums, it feels like a daring choice.
With Sigur Rós having to retool their sound after the departure of drummer Orri Páll Dýrason, part of what makes ÁTTA stand out in their discography is its sparse fluidity. Following ‘Blóðberg’, you get the sense that the music is constantly trying to pull itself together from a desolate place. Yet it directs its attention inward more than it looks to the heavens, and the few times it does, it serves as a necessary glimmer of hope. The introduction of a pulse on ‘Klettur’ feels like a magnanimous gesture on an album that, on the whole, could use a little more heft; but it’s whenever the beat recedes that the track reaches its most soaring moments, with celestial strings that sway like they’re stretching out from opposite ends of the sky. On ‘Skel’, which Jonsí has described as “the emo song,” a pained intensity wells up and then just dissipates, taking the time to soak in the impact. But it’s ‘Gold’ that might go down as one of the band’s most emotional songs; the beat is even fainter and all I can really glean from the lyrics is an echo of the words “anyway,” “all,” maybe “dying”? It’s enough to tie your stomach into a knot.
In its first half, ÁTTA teases a sense of momentum that doesn’t really build back up until the very end, at which point you question whether that is really the music’s primary concern. When the group sounds so comfortable sitting with what might possibly be contentment on songs like ‘Ylur’, it’s hard to long for any sounds that could get in the way of it, even if the results are more often just gorgeous than ecstatic or volcanic, as they have been described in the past. And while it would be absurd to try to attach a narrative to any of it, there is a satisfying richness to the album’s conclusion that doesn’t arrive by means of a dynamic finale so much as the achievement of balance: Even on a track as seemingly downcast as ‘Fall’, all the elements align and glisten, tugged together and far less vaporous than ‘Blóðberg’. That’s when the record feels like a breath of fresh air, which is better than any hyperbolic praise you might, before even listening, be poised to throw at it.