Entertainment Weekly

Guided by Voices

Björk’s new album is her most audacious yet—The Icelandic songstress talks about the reason “Medulla” is almost entirely free of instruments

Björk Guðmundsdóttir is sitting upstairs in a quiet restaurant in Reykjavík, just around the corner from the city’s central Austurvöllur square and the Hótel Borg, where in the ‘80s she and her mates whooped it up as progenitors of Iceland’s fledgling punk scene. These days, the now-stately Borg harbors few radicals, and the square, lined with tourist-friendly cafés, has gone mainstream. A massive banner ad for the Icelandic version of “American Idol” (Idol-Stjörnuleit) hangs over the park, with Bubbi, the chilly little nation’s answer to Simon Cowell, scowling smugly at passersby. Surprisingly—despite a hectic recent schedule that has included tending to her second child (Isadora, 2, whose father is the visual artist Matthew Barney), preparing an eye-popping number for the Aug. 13 opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and finishing up her fifth studio album—Björk has actually watched Iceland’s “Idol.” “I don’t know how they do it,” she says, marveling at the contestants’ ability to learn songs quickly. “If I didn’t like a song, I couldn’t even open my mouth. But, obviously, [the show] is about being a performer and being able to thrive under ridiculous pressure. I’d be an awful American Idol. I’d totally blow it.”

That’s not the only reason Björk wouldn’t cut it on “Idol.” The 39-year-old Icelandic singer is one of the pop world’s biggest risk takers, having released a string of wildly innovative albums over the past 11 years that have left music fans alternately awed and baffled. Her latest is no exception. Medúlla, due out on Aug. 31, has close to no instruments. A glacially paced, classically influenced set of deeply complex compositions, it is cast almost entirely from human voices : Björk’s cathedral-rattling roar, the Icelandic Choir’s gossamer highs, craggy art-rock legend Robert Wyatt’s grim exhortations, and miscellaneous spastic whoops and mechanical-sounding riffs from a host of global larynxes. In a career marked by innovation and eccentricity, this may be Björk’s most challenging offering yet.

She, of course, doesn’t quite see it that way. “I don’t feel this record is that eccentric,” she says. “But then again, I’m probably the last one to know. I think of it as more of a ‘going out’ record.” Excuse us : as in a party disc ? “[2001’s] Vespertine was meant to be a really introverted album that people listen to alone in their house,” she explains. “It’s introspective. It’s not a club record, for sure. But this, I think, is pretty outgoing.”

Well, maybe if you grew up in Iceland. In a way, Medúlla is a natural product of Björk’s upbringing, choral music being integral to Icelandic culture. “My grandparents had a diamond wedding anniversary a few weeks ago,” she says. “They wanted all the family to go camping for the weekend. In the evening, everybody would sing together. I’m used to no instruments.” To Björk, the melding of unaccompanied human voices can be a powerful communal experience, like when “you go into a club and you’re feeling really up, and then they turn off the sound system and people just sing together. For me, this is sort of a back-to-thepeople record.”

When Björk first appeared on the international pop scene, fronting the Sugarcubes, the then-22-year-old singer seemed less a product of a different culture than of a different planet. “Birthday,” the band’s 1988 breakout hit, sounded like nothing before or after it. Even so, Björk’s music would only get stranger. After three Sugarcubes albums, the singer went solo. Despite objections from her label, she crafted 1993’s Debut out of forward-looking electronic dance grooves. “The record company [said], ‘You’re aware that you will only sell a third of what the Sugarcubes sold, that it’s really an eccentric album,’” she says. “[I thought] ‘Whatever. I have to do it anyway.’ And that ended up selling loads more.”

Björk followed Debut with an ecstatically reviewed electronica trilogy (interrupted briefly by the 2000 soundtrack to Dancer in the Dark, which earned her a Best Song Oscar nod for “I’ve Seen It All”). The most accomplished of these is arguably Homogenic (1997), an exploration of “emotional landscapes” that masterfully merges strings and programmed beats in a manner that altered many folks’ idea of electronica as cold, soulless music. Her last album, Vespertine—an intricate, introverted, laptop-composed affair—was so cerebral it confused even some of her fans : It’s her first solo album not to go at least gold.

What they’ll make of Medúlla remains to be seen ; the sound is entirely different from her usual electronic textures. “I get easily bored,” she says, restlessly tugging at her oversize vintage dress. “It’s sort of a weakness or strength, depending on what situation I’m in.” In typical Björk fashion, she searches for a suitably visual metaphor to describe the urgings that led her away from electronic music. “It’s a feeling of having too much luggage, like having a really warm coat and it’s sunny outside. You just need to take it off. I still love synths, but I did OD a little bit. Electronic music was being brave, and then suddenly it became so mediocre. But people were still acting as if it was brave. It just seemed false to me.”

There is one old-fashioned Björk song on the album : First single “Oceania” is one of Medúlla’s most accessible tracks, and one of the few that incorporates an instrument (a piano). It’s also the tune that gave Björk the most trouble. A pesky, “over-the-top dramatic” melody had been bouncing around in her head for some time when she was approached to pen a song for this year’s Olympics. “I was thinking, What the f— am I going to do with this melody ?” she says. “So it was perfect when they asked me. I mean, how grand can you get ? The Olympics, right ? But I tried to write the lyrics and I couldn’t. I just came up with rubbish like ‘Pull up your socks and run through the ribbon,’ ‘All the nations hold hands,’ and stupid stuff like that. Pathetic !” She can’t help but chuckle at her uncharacteristic writer’s block. “So I ended up asking my friend who’s a poet [frequent collaborator Sjón] to write the words.”

Despite the lack of drum tracks, there are rhythm-driven moments on Medúlla, even though the beats are made with lips and tongues rather than samplers and sequencers. These songs owe much to former Roots member and human beat box Rahzel, who convincingly re-creates the punch of drums on songs like “Where Is the Line” and “Triumph of a Heart.” “F—ing hell,” says Björk of his startling performance on “Who Is It.” “There’s no overdubbing. He did it live in one take. That’s Rahzel for you. I think somebody like him deserves a solo. I’ve heard him on records where they’ll just take one bar of him, loop it, and it sounds like drums. Why get him to do that ? It’s a waste.”

Björk’s gift to fans has been her ability to remain entirely—bravely—herself, and to extend that gesture to collaborators. She might enjoy a TV star search, but she has no interest in seeing talent—not Rahzel’s, not her own—boxed in by the world’s Simon Cowells. “I want people to be what they are,” she says. “Maybe because people have always referred to me as this exotic elf from Iceland. I hate it, but I’ve been really lucky because I’ve always had a place to define myself.” It’s a place out of the way, but definitely worth the trip.

Neil Drumming

publié dans Entertainment Weekly - 03.09.2004

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