“Instruments are so over,” claims Björk, half-humorously, when discussing Medúlla, for which she has stripped away most of the instrumentation to leave her greatest asset—her voice—supported by only the occasional skeleton of programmed beats, an occasional synth drone, and a warm patina of other voices, including those of Robert Wyatt, the former Faith No More singer Mike Patton, the Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis, and the Icelandic Choir that has accompanied her on live performances.
It’s a facetious notion, but not one without some justification. The voice has always been the most personal of instruments, the furthest extension of the principle which maintains that wind instruments, because of the physical source of their sounds within the human body, are more revealing of a musician’s character than those instruments whose control is entirely tactile and external. And certainly, in its greatest manifestations, there is little to compare to the visceral thrill of unaccompanied singing.
Here, the singing is not quite that pure and unmediated, thanks to the creation of “fake” instrumentation, such as basslines and human-beatbox percussion, from vocal samples, which hobbles some tracks with a mechanistic engine that detracts from their organic flow. So although the most commercially viable pieces might be those with funky hip-hop, garage or trip-hop beats, such as “Where is the Line ?”, “Triumph of a Heart” and “Who Is It”, the most satisfying tend to be those which either showcase her serpentine lead vocal lines, such as “Show Me Forgiveness” and “Desired Constellation”, or which surround her lead vocal with the comforting, feathery susurrus of the Icelandic Choir—such as the hymn-like “Vökuró” and “Sonnets/ Unrealities XI” (the latter a setting of an e.e. cummings poem)—or Wyatt’s characteristic watery drones, as on “Submarine”.
Many of the lyrics deal with the desires and obligations of relationships, from the celebrations of emotional generosity in “Pleasure is all Mine” to the imposition of limits in “Where is the Line”. “Triumph of a Heart” is more directly germane to the project at hand, as Björk marvels at the way “Smooth soft red velvety lungs/ Are pushing a network of oxygen joyfully/ Through a nose, through a mouth”, while “Desired Constellation” offers an equally pertinent affirmation of her need to pursue her vision wherever it may lead her : “With a palm full of stars/ I throw them like dice/ Repeatedly/ Until the desired constellation appears.”
Some of those constellations may be a little off the charts of more mainstream fans, being closer in attitude and ambition to the vocal experiments of contemporary classical singers such as Cathy Berberian and Joan La Barbara than they are to pop. But as with all Björk’s work, they’re well worth the effort expended in following their course.