Review: Björk, Flirting with natural disaster

Review: Björk, Volta

It had to happen sooner or later. Mrs. Matthew Barney has produced an album I don’t entirely wish to lick to death. I guess maybe there are a couple of tracks on Selmasongs I skip through, but, for the most part, her non-film related albums have all been solid, complete, amazing examples of Björk’s musical talents.

Volta

I was initially disappointed on first hearing, since the vocally driven Medúlla exploded through with some promising, ingenious musical moments that I thought for certain meant that Björk was finally going to tear down the “pop” label once and for all and catapult into a career as what her talents prove her to be: A composer.

There are tracks on Medúlla that challenge being called songs (at the very least cannot be called pop songs) and have more of the character of serious (or “classical”) compositions; i.e. “Show Me Forgiveness,” “Vökuró,” “Öll Birtan,” “Submarine.” Furthermore, Medúlla is the only pop album I have heard since mid-September of 2001 that addresses the present world tummult (call it post-911, post-Iraq-invasion, post-Tsunami, or post-whatever world turmoil that is presently reeling in our consciousnesses)–or rather, seems to respond to our political and cultural situation in an aesthetic manner. Beyond simply writing an anit-war song, that is, a song in traditional style whose lyrics happen to express anti-war sentiments, Medúlla uses musical aesthetics to convey a universe that is off-balance (listen to the daring and guttural bass doubling on “Where Is The Line”), incongruous (the gurgling vocal cascades of “Oceania”), and penetratingly sexual, or survivalist (“Ancestors”). So with all the talk of Volta being a “political album”, I had big expectations. What would be more political than abandoning a pop aesthetic that caters to capitalist notions of compartmentalization? Well, as if to totally trump me, Björk employs Timbaland–one of mainstream hip-hop and pop music’s biggest producers–to throw down some beats for her. The chorus of “Innocence,” Volta’s fourth track and produced by T. Mosley, actually sounds like it could have been slated for Britney‘s comeback album.

Most people have a hard time looking deeply into Björk’s music because her persona is such a huge part of her work. It’s easy to get thrown off by what’s “weird” about Björk and to chalk it all up to eccentricity. But the weirdness that seems to be “Earth Intruders” main shtick–a hard, crunchy beat, the lyrics We are the earth intruders, (which we might at first mistake to mean “aliens” until we realize, no, wait, she means humanitarian aid workers), and a plinky descending and ascending arpeggio–disguises a lot of what is conventional about this and other songs on this album: a steady four-four meter, predictable phrasing, and melodic and harmonic content that is comparatively standard. (But the song is still pretty hot.)

The entire album sounds, in ways, like a return to early Björk. It has an eclecticism that rings of an artist in search of new ground. This was Björk’s frame of mind on Debut, which was her first solo effort. It sounds as though, after three albums of careful, homogeneous stylizing (Homogenic, Vespertine and Medúlla), Volta is a new explosion, rather than a creative fixation of one concept or idea. In Volta, Björk is back on the mountain top (Declare Independence), she’s singing from the harbor again (Wanderlust), she’s on the move from song to song, making pit stops in China (I See Who You Are), Africa (Hope), and the Lower East Side (Declare Independence). In that sense, the album is coherent.

There are wonderful live sampled sounds of streets, rain, and engine. Two gorgeous compositions for samples of barge horns bookend the album; one following the close of the opening track, the other leading into a distorted beat for “Declare Independence,” which is certainly the album’s stand-out song. With its unapologetic and earnest nod to punk, it is also the album’s most overtly political number: damn colonists/ignore their patronizing/tear off their blindfolds/open their eyes.

The song before this, however, is the least successful track politically, and is even painful to listen to. what’s the lesser of 2 evils?/if a suicide bomber made to look pregnant/manages to kill her target or not? I’m not sure what kind of riddle this is. Usually when this figure of speech is invoked, it is to draw attention to two inevitable outcomes. Is Björk implying that suicide bombing is inevitable, and the only variation is whether she will kill her target or blow herself up “in vain”? It’s a slightly dangerous viewpoint, and I’m not sure if Björk translates herself very well here. Aside from her usual grammatical hiccups (intentional or otherwise), this is unusual bleariness from Björk. To top it off, the song has a vaguely Afro-Carribean feel.

Most notable though, is the appearance on two songs of Antony Hegerty. His voice is akin to Björk’s in the sense that it is arguably the most distinct voice of his generation. The effort on “The Dull Flame of Desire” is beautiful, even though the song itself marches along in a relentless bolero. But when his voice returns as “The Conscience” in the final song, “My Juvenile,” it’s confusing. He doesn’t sing that much, and you kind of feel like, oh, ok, I thought we already did that. The return sounds contradictory, especially when the album is so overtly–and literally–about turmoil, restlessness, and liberation.

My least favorite aspect of this album is the inclusion and sampling of music Björk composed for the film Drawing Restraint 9, the painfully long whaling epic she made with Matthew Barney. The music on its own was quite interesting. Her passages for brass are exciting, clustery punches that progress and speed up, culminating in a gorgeous, bright howl. The music is modern in a very traditional way, and their formal structures unexpected. But in adapting them to this album, they lose their identity as their compositional sense of freedom is bent to accommodate the tight conventionality the pop-song imposes. The worst example of this is “Vertebrae By Vertebrae,” which–cluster by cluster–dismantles the original instrumental music into a a mere background for Björk’s vocal wanderings.

A lot of this album sounds like Björk is not trying to control a whole lot. If loosening the reigns will lead to new discoveries, even if it means a few bumps and inconsistencies along the way, it sounds like Björk is willing to make that compromise. In her own words, “Well, I don’t care.”

3 Comments

  1. I agree with your summary at nearly every step. I’m offten floored by Bjork’s work, found Post and Homogenic more coherent than Debut, rich in her unique and hypnotic soundscapes, only to be followed by her masterpiece: Vespertine (perhaps my favorite album of all-time). Medulla threw me, at least some of the songs appeared too over-the-top wierd for the sake of weirdness, but I soon recognized I not the music was the problem. Once I got over the expectation of pop paraphernalia it’s brilliance was obvious. I also found Selmasongs (though I thoroughly enjoyed the movie) quite tedious for the most part.
    Volta however for the first time on a non-film studio album fails to utterly astound,to alternately lull and whip into a frenzy, or to seem entirely new an revelatory. The “opener sounds like recycled B-52’s, and yes like a Debut or maybe a Sugarcubes outtake. Wanderlust, one of the finer songs here, sounds simiilar to, builds from quiet to intense much like, previous work (Joga, Isobel, Pagan Poetry) though the horns are a powerful addition.
    Dull Flame is a fine song though i found Hegerty’s volume slightly below that of Bjork to be a distraction. She has mentioned in interviews previous attempts to write noble and romantic anthems and this certainly appears to be such an effort. Though unlike that song it plods along in a stately manor,and is not as obviously erotic, it resembles at times the song “Harm of Will” from Vespertine, particularly in the Bjork’s dubbed back vocals about midway.
    “Innocence” doesn’t work on any level. “I See Who You Are” looks back to Vespertine in its quiet charm, but seems randomly placed here, mostly just reminding you of that earlier work.
    “Pneumonia” starts off with a haunting repeated horn figure. The promininent use of horns where she since the mid-ninties more often wove string arrangements is a new development for non-cinematic Bjork.
    Aafter that my eyes and apparently my ears grew glazed. Is that Bjork or Cat Powers
    Circa 1995 on “Declare Independence”?

    “My Juvenile” again reminds us how great the album Vespertine was and is, no matter how she changes the words.

  2. Cat Power, sorry Chan.

  3. Hey BeatFox-

    I think you’re assessment is really spot-on. Vespertine is a consummate achievement as an album. Delicate and adventurous, and always deeply sensuous.

    There was just something about Medula that I found so rogue, that, I think, in the back of my mind I estimate it above Vespertine, if only for how outrageous some of Bjork’s choices were. But at the same time, there are more tracks on Medula I will skip through than on Vespertine. And yet again, “Where Is The Line” is probably one of the greatest single pieces of music I have ever heard. Ever. And that includes classical music and TV show theme songs.

    xoxoC.C.


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