One Little Indian/Elektra
jörk doesn’t really write songs anymore. You’re not going to drive to work with “Hope” as your gas-foot. You’re never going to remember the tune behind “Pneumonia” or “I See Who You Are,” but splinters of their wistful timbre may stick anyway—the former’s Bering Sea horn intro, on repeat as you floss your teeth ‘cause it’s so damn bedtime, or the latter’s ether moodsway. Of course, there are fans of both Debut and Post who lost the song and have since given up on Björk. And then there are fans of Homogenic and Vespertine who never got with Medulla’s vocal playgrounding—it was too academic and sterile (never mind that its ‘beat-boxing’ rhythms were just as trenchant as anything on either of its two predecessors, or that it’s choral arrangements featured some of the most bewitching moments in ‘pop’ history). For me, her best records (the last three) are the sort you only remember when you’re still inside them—once they’ve gone quiet, it’s hard to recall just why you felt so limp and vulnerable a moment before. She’s melodic now like Alice Coltrane was melodic—laying down the distracted warmth of FEEL and then mining that supple headspace until she tires of it. That gives her late discography something few artists achieve: a novel, almost virgin experience on revisiting albums you THINK YOU KNOW. It keeps them fresh and propulsive. Her sixth studio album, Volta, leaves just this sort of shaken phantom impression. And, likewise, it’s damn effective.
In the aftermath of the vocally-derived Medulla and the bold music-boxings of Vespertine, Volta is a return to very organic-feeling structures and simple beat layouts. Timbaland’s getting all of the press for the three beats he contributed, and in 2007 that’s still a great way to stir advance album buzz. When he’s not involved though, Volta thrives on grand spoils of Icelandic brass and rather nostalgic 808 beat patterns. It feels stark and well-spread, with each track reaching out to the next by fog-horn outros and soft ambience. One always hesitates to connect-the-dots with Björk, given her scattershot artistic aims. Yet Volta does have its predecessor, though the line goes back to her 2005 soundtrack for hubby Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9 instead of her last studio album, Medulla. In fact she samples horn parts from the work for “Declare Independence” and “Vertebrae by Vertebrae.” As usual though, her bedhead sense of grandeur is rounded out by plenty of A-list contributors, from the Malian kora player Toumani Diabate and Congolese thumb-pianists Konono N°1 to two compelling drummers, Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale and Sonic Youth cohort Chris Corsano; from the fever-soft voice of Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons to long-time beat programmer Mark Bell. Regardless of your feelings for his own work, Antony’s overtly classical sound—so fey, so heron-like—is perfectly suited for Björk’s eccentric hypersensuality, especially on their duet of Fyodor Tyutchev’s “The Dull Flame of Desire.” As for Chippendale and Corsano, they give the album much of its forest fire-warmth, in spots where she felt some of the more complex beats she’d come up with simply wouldn’t work for the material’s global centering.
And, for much of her new album, you can understand her desire to replace the 808 with the trample and stroll of her guest drummers. Volta is an album that often bristles at this huge place we’re in, an excess of energy that comes out both in songs of inflammation and intense discourses with herself and her family. As with much of her past work, it’s almost embarrassingly human, sometimes sounding too close to you to believe it’s not your own. Björk voices her global frustrations, as perhaps we all do, by speaking loudly to herself and others and more charitably to those close to her; it’s inward and outward at once, and this duality gives her new songs immense breadth.
There are moments when, in the vein of the blunt storm of “Army of Me,” Björk just needs to march again. On the Timbaland-produced lead single “Earth Intruders,” she takes a trip to Indonesia in 2005 post-tsunami and spills that “turmoil, carnage” into a vital protest song, against what and just whom though it’s hard to tell. Konono N°1 squiggle their thumb-pianos around the jaw-bone beat of Timbaland, who clips up Corsano’s kit into a massive jolt of rhythm and pinched synth sounds. She sounds bottom-centered again, willing to allow an entire song to become engulfed in the enormity of one—admittedly wide-sprung—beat. Likewise, “Hope” pits a sandy Timbaland patter and Diabate’s harp-like kora against a tale of a pregnant suicide bomber. Loosely based on an incident involving a Palestinian woman whose pregnancy was assumed at first to be just a means of hiding her bomb, Björk questions the strange morality of the scenario, whether the validity of the pregnancy itself was important given the media’s immediate reaction: feigning procreation in order to facilitate mass casualties. It’s another of those moments where Björk could easily be accused of facile social scrutiny—perhaps the worst of all sins in song—and pulls it off by the strange vaguery of her terms. The album’s oddest inclusion though, “Declare Independence,” uses a retro industrial stomp for her to scream universal protests: “Damn the colonists / Ignore their patronizing / Tear off their blindfold / Open their eyes.” Given its placement on the album, it recalls “It’s Oh So Quiet” on Post in that musically, it comes off as jarring and almost unwelcome, though its thematic are certainly right at home.
Juxtaposed against these meta-protest songs are unflinchingly personal tracks that reflect Björk steadying against the tendency to close herself off from the world. “Innocence,” for example, is the sound of Björk trying to pull out of her isolation and withdrawal. Over a beat that sounds most like the Timbaland of Timberlake—thomp, thomp, ugh—she sings about not distancing herself any longer, regaining a former sense of “fearlessness” as an act of generosity and reactivation. The song’s ultimate success is in the way it caves your chest—with Timbaland so thick and fast, it literally sounds like a panic attack, the very kind of self-immersion that she’s urging herself away from. “Vertebrae by Vertebrae” is about that same compacted pressure, its claustrophobia created by her ten-piece Icelandic horn section and Corsano’s crafty crescendo drumming. “Pneumonia” opens with the peppery sound of late rain, a bleak introduction to another track on which we find Björk remonstrating with herself. The gorgeous brass is conducted by rising Bedroom Community artist Nico Muhly, but that’s it for its instrumentation. With so much space in which to move around, Björk goes full-on operatic in her strongest vocal performance of the record, entwining shards of phrasing with sudden leaps in tone and reach that are at times utterly breathtaking. But it’s on the album’s song of intent according to Björk, “Wanderlust,” where she finally ducks out of the corner into which she’s backed herself. Mark Bell’s static-rimmed 808 is a comfortable retreat on its own, surrounded again by thick gusts of tuba and trombone, as Björk sings “peel off the layer / Until you get to the core.” It’s both aspiring and vaguely anthemic, a protest turned toward herself and the sedentary life she’s begun to lead.
But Björk’s advice isn’t just for herself or the global masses on Volta. Reminiscent in dreamtime tone to “Possibly Maybe,” “I See Who You Are” is her realization of how quickly children lose their youth. With its pitter-patter tonal pattern, Min Xiao-Fen’s crisp pipa playing, and more stiff brass, Björk sings of taking advantage of this still moment before the relentless fading, before century’s separation when “you and I have become corpses.” “My Juvenile,” however, is aimed towards elder son, Sindri. One of Volta’s simplest layouts—only pipa and treated clavichord—it’s in some ways an apology for allowing him too much freedom at too fresh an age. Antony plays the Conscience, reminding Björk that “her intentions were pure,” but ultimately the song serves as a last finger-touch before putting this guilt behind her and permitting Sindri, now 20, his own growth.
Of course, by now, we’re well accustomed to Björk’s third-moon sensibility. Her voice, so odd and singular, molds well with the intrusions she makes on her various personas—as “BJÖRK,” as mother, as lover, as global fury. Volta is filled with the dual disembowelings of our place in time—the explosions and the dissections both. It’s tempting to either praise or condemn it on the way it wears its political wonderings on its sleeve. But despite its dissent, Volta is ultimately best viewed in voided terms. Apply no factors to it, the same way we all should have forgotten from the start that Medulla was all vocal splicing or that Vespertine featured Matmos—those lame critical framing-points. As I said earlier, you’re never going to hum Björk in the shower again. If you have to put your voice to it, try chanting.