New Zealand Listener

Choir of me

“Instruments are so over,” says Icelandic
icon Björk, and her latest album Medúlla
sets out to prove it : 45 minutes of wallto-
wall voices with virtually no
instrumental accompaniment.

But if she’s counting on an a cappella
revival as an antidote to guitar bands and electronica, she’s a long way from the Mills Brothers or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”.

She premieres her new palette in the opening track “Pleasure Is All Mine”. It features an orchestra of
moans, sighs and tears, all made by her voice and manipulated using digital recording technology. It is
augmented by the guttural bass of an Inuit throat singer, rock wailings of Faith No More frontman Mike
Patton and the full force of an Icelandic choir. And the 13 tracks that follow are variations on this audacious
orchestration, with extra rhythmic and tonal colours, such as the delicate voice of innovative English
musician Robert Wyatt. There’s also the occasional drum programme ; when it comes to breaking rules
Björk is compulsive, even when the rules are her own.

Björk’s rationale for the vocal-dominated approach was a practical one. Earlier versions of the album
using instruments seemed oversaturated ; the songs were being swamped in sound, and something had to
go.

If her new songs fare better in the instrument-free environment, there are times when they resemble a
sonic traffic jam. A musical prodigy who received intensive formal training in childhood, Björk is utterly
at ease with the ideas of the classical avant-garde and draws from them freely, splashing harsh dissonances
about with bold assurance.

In one song, she quotes (not for the first time) the poet e. e. cummings, and her own writing, through its
dislocated imagery and deliberate misuse of syntax, aims for a similar mix of innocence and intellect.

No pop icon since David Bowie in his prime has so confidently straddled this divide without completely
marginalising their music. And Medúlla, despite sounding unlike anything else around at the moment,
remains fundamentally a pop record. The songs are concise and even have hooks and choruses. Listen to
“Who Is It ?” and try to resist humming along.

Björk’s more cerebral devices are offset by the gut-wrenching directness of her voice. In full flight, it’s as
emotional a tool as Aretha Franklin’s. Hear her double-tracked tug-of-war with herself on “Desired
Constellation” and feel the goosebumps.

If Medúlla is distinct from any of Björk’s earlier discs, it is also recognisably part of the continuum, right
down to the way she steps outside her self-defined genre for one tune, as she did for “It’s Oh So Quiet”, the
big-band standard that was both a peculiarity and a highpoint of Post. Here the odd song out is “Vokuro”.
Written by Icelandic classical composer Jorunn Vidar, it is a breathtakingly beautiful melody originally
written for piano. Paradoxically, Björk’s choral resetting is one of the album’s pop moments.

Pop or not, Medúlla steps further outside the square than recent releases by pop stars of comparable
stature. With major label sales in decline, Björk’s peers are mostly consolidating their careers with familiarsounding
releases. Take Bowie’s recent albums or the latest from the Finns.

Much of Medúlla is great ; at times it merely grates. Either way, it is a fearless statement from a musician
who knows it is more thrilling to risk your future than institutionalise your past.

Nick Bollinger

publié dans New Zealand Listener - 02.10.2004

 

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