Leave it to Björk to come up with the year’s most original album. Iceland’s most famous export—Björk’s now a New Yorker, living with her child with the acclaimed visual and film artist Matthew Barney—and certainly pop’s most daring ingenue, Björk is perpetually restless, thrilling and innovative.
Björk is a pioneer. Even when her work puzzles more than it pleases.
In the case of Medúlla, her seventh solo studio album, Björk has produced a beautiful work of art.
Medúlla is stunning for its simplicity : The album’s “music” is composed almost entirely of human voices, the first instruments we ever had.
Björk explains in a news release for the album, whose title means “marrow”, that she had one main rule for the album : no rules.
Björk says that while she knew she wanted 1997’s Homogenic to be wildly extroverted and grandiose and 2001’s Vespertine more muted and introverted, with Medúlla she wasn’t sure what she wanted. So she dispensed with a blueprint.
Björk herself banged on the the drums in the studio (“I’m awful, but drumming relieves tension”) to song structures already filled with instruments. When she listened to the tapes, she wasn’t pleased.
“It wasn’t working.... I was trying to figure out why, wondering, “Where are the songs in all this mess ?”
“Then I sat down at the mixing-desk and started muting the instruments, and it was like, ‘Oh ! There they are.’ ”
Björk destroyed her own songs to find them.
It’s a classic, very bold, theme in art and literature : destruction can be creation.
The concept “freed” Björk to start again and added a sense of spontaneity and merriment to her project. She decided the human voice would be the album’s instrument Next, Björk found a fun team of sound pranksters, people with interesting voices and abilities, people she wanted to make noise with in the studio.
The only other rule Björk says she had for the new direction of Medúlla “was for it not to sound like Manhattan Transfer or Bobby McFerrin.”
In other words, Björk wanted it to be, well, weird. So, Medúlla runs the gamut of sounds and includes singing, samples of human voices, weird pastiches, loops, some primal grunts, some singing in English and some in Icelandic. Onomatopoeia, anyone ? Those of you studying poetry in high school know this term. There’s plenty of crazy buzzing and hissing and exotic sounds courtesy of human beings. And beat boxing ! Oh yes, glorious beat boxing.
Björk’s kooky cast of voice musicians is diverse. The Medúlla players include the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis, Japanese a cappella singer Dokaka and British art rocker Robert Wyatt, the drummer for Soft Machine in the 1970s and later a solo singer-songwriter. Wyatt duets with Björk on the dreamy and doowoppy Submarine.
Former Faith No More and Mr. Bungle singer Mike Patton is also on board, as is beatboxer Rahzel, formerly of the Roots. Also avant garde singer and human trombonist Gregory Purnhagen, known for his work with minimalist composer Philip Glass.
“I liked all of us to make any special noises we could make on the new album,” Björk says.
On the breathtaking Vokuro, Björk invited a 20-member choir to help her reinvent a composition that a fellow Icelandic composer originally wrote for piano. Björk had to map out the octaves of a piano keyboard for the singers. “It was actually pretty easy to change.... The soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts were already there.”
What seemed most rewarding to Björk, she explains, was the freedom she found in working on Medúlla. Not having a plan opened her up artistically. Also rewarding, she tenderly acknowledges, was the enjoyment of trusting nature and her subconscious, knowing it would all come together for her.
Björk savored the creative process because it was fun. And she didn’t belabor it.
“You start some kind of universe, and because you’re doing it from the right place, it completes itself,” says Björk, acknowledging, too, that letting go of a goal was important.
As was simply savoring making noise with creative friends.
“The best thing maybe is that I’m enjoying all those little nuances with people, those micro-moments that I used to think were just pauses between real life.”