So it finally arrives - for many (count me in - stand by for critical cliché #1) one of the most eagerly awaited albums of the year - Sigur Rós' fourth album, and their first since signing to EMI after the release of the brackets album in 2002.
So - carefully set aside the artwork for future pondering, insert the pristine, enigmatically-stamped disc, press play, and ...
Track 1: Takk... (Thanks) the curtains part - a two-minute long, shimmering, shining shiver of expectation, sooo Sigur Rós, you're holding your breath, it's a bit like Christmas, and here, now, at last, it begins ...
... ssshhh ...
... and, straight away, you feel something's slightly wrong ...
Not wrong wrong - not evil wrong - not as in Some Cities or X&Y wrong - but just 'slightly' wrong, as if you'd asked for champagne and got chilled frizzante.
And this feeling - it just won't go away.
Track 2: Glósóli (Glowsun) doesn't shift it, even though this is an almost quintessential SR song - so SR it's almost self-parody - the tinkly stuff, the clattery stuff, the e-bowed guitar stuff, that wonderful angelic voice of Jónsi stuff (who's singing, this time, incidentally, in his native Icelandic rather than in the made-up Hopelandic of the previous albums, for all the difference that makes to non-Icelanders). What is it? What's missing?
The following three tracks don't shift it, delightful as they are - a playful regression into childish charm - beguiling, sweet, charming, fun. And those strings, those rolling, super-reverberant piano riffs - good grief, we're in the Christmas Spectacular scene from the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour! Those dark, chthonic spaces of yore, whose worlds-end entrances Jónsi always seemed to be guarding like some kind of shamanic gatekeeper have been made over as Santa's Grotto! Complete with brass band and a passing oom-pa-pa moment. It's all tremendous fun. Is that it? That it's all just a bit too - well - happy?
Sæglópur (Lost At Sea) - track 6 - does, finally, shift it, that nagging feeling, with a moment, after a typically lovely, intimate intro, of the kind that awakens everything in you that only Sigur Rós can touch, such a moment that everyone who can remember their first hearing of Ágætis Byrjun will never forget - a devastating plunge into a full-on ramming-speed bass-blistering happy armageddon of the senses that has every available follicle between nape and coccyx flickering with galvanised frenzy - and it is just - unbelievably - GLORIOUS!
But that's about the sum of it, unless you're well into kitsch, in which case Mílanó might ring your bell. (Why 'Mílanó'? Why not 'Glásgów'? Or 'Quító'?) It's a showstopper, that's for sure - 'Donatella's Lament', perhaps, from 'Death in Milan - The Musical' - overblown, oversweet, overlong, and as gorgeous and bombastic as a Bernini altarpiece.
Or Gong, with its perkily promising, rhythmically uncompromising beginning that meanders into a sentimental swamp of schmalzy orchestrations and a precarious vocal line from Jónsi that (I really never imagined I'd find myself saying this) just gets irritating.
And finally, sandwiched between the similar-sounding Andvari (Zephyr) and the album's closer, Heysátan (Haystack) (a pair of introverted, thoughtful little hymns to nature that seem to have wandered in from another album entirely) Svo Hljótt (So Quietly) again demonstrates the classic SR bell-curve of an intimately quiet opening building over time into an almost overwhelming inverted Gullfoss of sound before returning to a quiet conclusion, and, like the opener, Glósóli, packs all the familiar armoury of emotional resonance. But there's something missing ...
The burden of expectation, of course, was virtually impossible to support. When your sophomore album turns out, in retrospect, to have been one of the masterpieces of its generation, where do you go from there? The brackets album, although it got lost in parts in the darkness of its own design, was essentially a coda to Ágætis Byrjun - forged in the same furnace, and to be considered as a piece with that album's greater golden hoard. Since then, aside from doing a great deal of touring, the band's creative energy has been focussed, individually and collectively, on a number (as many as thirteen, depending on what you count) of very different projects, from the collaborations with the composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson - the Odin's Raven Magic project, among others - and the choreographer Merce Cunningham - resulting in the wonderful EP Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do - to 2004's outstandingly fruitful collaboration with The Album Leaf on his album, In A Safe Place, and Jónsi's strange participation in The Hafler Trio's Exactly As I Say, also in 2004. These projects - all collaborations - were all, clearly, fully-realised creative entities, not time-filling side-projects, and it may be that their realisation left the creative reservoir available for the material for a new album less than full. Who knows?
Certainly, it feels as though Takk emerges from a group who, despite having long since arrived at the zenith of their capability, has, at least for the time being, run out of things to say. The result is the inescapable feeling that they're going through the motions of engaging the emotional switches in such-and-such a sequence because that's how it used to work, which is a bit complacent and just a little bit sad, because it reminds us of how well it did. And, on the way, there are even one or two mistakes - like morphing the delightful Amina - their faithful backing quartet of the last four years - into Mantovani's Shimmering Strings at more than one point (once might have been ironic).
So what's missing?
I think, by now, you'll have probably guessed the answer to that.
So it goes.
At this point, as is often the case in such matters, we have a choice - either to engage with the gravy-train fan-hype and linger in the rainy, tear-disguising shadows in hope of some self-delusional crumbs of PR comfort, or to bite our lip, accept that all that is solid melts into air, and, with nary a glance behind, say the only thing there's left to say to the guys who provided such an unforgettable contribution to the recent soundtrack of our lives: