On January 20, 2003, I received a call I’ll never forget. It was a call that split my life in two. It was a call from my squad leader in the North Dakota National Guard, activating my unit in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, which later became Operation Iraqi Freedom. We were being sent to Iraq.
We didn’t know that at the time but regardless we prepared for the deployment. We packed our gear: boots, uniforms, canteens, entrenching tools for digging foxholes. We also packed the other necessities: books, photographs of friends and family, music. This was before iPods were a necessity, so you had to choose your music carefully. Like a long-distance trip where you must choose the songs that will make up that journey, I dove into my CD collection and selected only a half-dozen albums to take with me. These would be the songs of my new journey. These would be the titles I’d have to listen to over and over and over and over.
I also bought new albums. On the recommendation of a friend, who played the album straight through during his college radio program, I bought ( ) by Sigur Rós at a Best Buy in Fargo, North Dakota, on Jan. 26, 2003. The next day I boarded a bus in Wahpeton, North Dakota, with other troops bound for Fort Carson, Colorado. I immediately placed my headphones on my head and listened – for the first time – to ( ) as the bus left Wahpeton on that cold, grey day.
The album defies description. There is no album title, no track titles, no writing in the booklet. Instead, the Icelandic band presents an album of songs open for interpretation, a set of songs refusing to be tagged. They are songs that defy any sort of definition. You can try to label them but you’ll never be able to label these songs as just one thing. They are many things, associated to many other things, something different to everyone who hears them.
The music of Sigur Rós is hard to explain. These are songs of moods, emotions and desires. The often spooky plunking of piano keys, swelling of guitars and Birgisson’s waif-like voice fueled the feeling I was having while leaving North Dakota – regret, sadness, fear. They matched every emotion, every feeling I was having for having to leave the place where I belonged. As we left Wahpeton and the dozens of people waving from roadside curbs, warm cars and overpass bridges, the songs of ( ) began to seep into me, calming the anger I was having about leaving. The melodies matched the mood of a soldier set on a journey to war. Like generations before, I began attaching songs to “my war.”
( ) became my war music.
The songs also matched the land – pure white blankets of late January snow stretching for miles. The bare branches of the trees dotting the open fields matched the barren branches on the back of the jewel case. These were songs of vastness, songs that were unique like landscapes.
Without track names I began putting names to each song. On Track 4, Birgisson’s voice drifts over the dreamlike sweetness of a piano. For me, Birgisson is singing the word “desire” over and over, and while looking out at the passing greyness of North Dakota fields, I was searching for something to hold onto about my old life, some kind of memory to keep with me. Birgisson’s voice surged with emotion and fell to a hushed melody of piano and strings. It was a song – a feeling – I had trouble explaining. Yet, that song and the images of that cold day are what I remember now.
I listened to the album four times on the trip from Wahpeton to Fort Carson, more than any of the other albums I packed. Each song reminds me of a place and feeling during that trip: Track 1 became “Dog Chasing the Bus outside Wahpeton” and “Loneliness at Seeing the Colorado Rockies”; Track 5 became “The Border Between the Dakotas” and “One Night in North Platte, Nebraska”; Track 8 became “Boots Hanging from Power Lines at Armory in Sioux City, Iowa.”
While the songs refused to be tagged, I associate them with that journey. They will always remind me of the places we passed through and the feelings surging through my body while I listened to the album.
Today, I refer to my life in two halves: the time before that call, and the time after. I was terrified of leaving North Dakota for Iraq. I was terrified of growing up, spending 12 months in a country torn by war. ( ) helped me calm those nerves. The album became the opening to the second act of my life.
Bronson Lemer is a MFA candidate at MSU.