Best Song Ever: Svefn-g-englar

I’ve never been able to fall asleep to music.

Ágætis byrjun

I tried, of course, a couple decades ago, after first discovering that most normal people don’t require three or four hours of mental struggle before drifting off. Perhaps music would help, I told myself, and would pick something relatively soothing, only to wind up focusing too much on the music and not enough on the slumber.

Sleep is alien to me, a state of being that cannot arrive without pharmaceutical assistance. Most nights, I am convinced I will never fall asleep again, having apparently forgotten how. Of course I eventually remember, although the formula apparently disappears from memory as I wake. Each night, then, remains the same: a mind unwilling to shut itself down, bombarded with swirling thoughts and fading ideas which push against a sleep that dances and teases without making contact.

The alien-ness of sleep is in every note of Sigur Rós’ “Svefn-g-englar,” the breakthrough single from the band’s second album, Ágætis byrjun. The song is, simply put, what dreaming sounds like. The introductory delicate synth chords are punctuated with notes popping like sonar yet restrained and distant, all then consumed by a darker wail. It’s vocalist/guitarist Jónsi Birgisson at work, using a cello bow on his guitar to create a dark, rich, haunting tone. Birgisson counters this with a breathy, floating falsetto; bandmates provide whispery backup. The otherworldliness is interrupted only once, about midway through, as hard drums and guitars crash down, but it does not last. The dream wins out.

I’ve used the “this is what dreaming sounds like” line since I first heard the song but did not discover until years later that the title is Icelandic for “sleepwalkers.” The literal English translation of the lyrics (assuming the internet can be trusted with such matters) has nothing to do with sleep (beyond a clever use of the title in the final line) and is so very beautiful in its own right, yet I will not provide it here because it is ultimately unnecessary. I understand why the band has opted to use their made up nonsense language (nicknamed both “Vonlenska” and “Hopelandic”) to fill many of their lyrics ever since – this kind of ethereal music invites the listener to bring his/her experiences and translations to the party; it’s like the fluidity of thoughts George Carlin once talked about, the stuff that’s wordless and shapeless until you so crassly define it with something as concrete as a word.

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