Volta (One Little Indian)
It starts promisingly. With squelchy marching feet (vaguely reminiscent of the intro to Sex Pistols’ Holidays In The Sun) and a swooping melody, Earth Intruders opens Björk’s 11th album on a wave of pop optimism (poptimism ?).
Björk, according to critical consensus, has long abandoned the highways of pop in favour of the wastelands of the avant garde. True, her last album, Medulla was constructed almost entirely from human voices with little in the way of conventional instruments. Which sounds like the worst kind of self-indulgent, elitist project, but Björk somehow confounded these assumptions.
While I would not suggest for a minute that Medulla was as commercial as 1993’s Debut or 1995’s Post, it wasn’t the tune-free desert that might have been expected. Who Is It (Carry My Joy On The Left, Carry My Pain On The Right), Oceania and especially the brilliantly exciting Triumph Of The Heart were all blessed with big pop tunes even if they were heavily disguised by howling Eskimos and beatboxing rappers.
Her wonderful 2001 record, Vespertine, may again have rarely threatened to break out into a tap dance, but even its cosy, warm fluffiness couldn’t quite conceal the astonishingly moving Pagan Poetry, one of only three songs anywhere capable of overloading my tear ducts.
So, while Björk has not bothered the Top 20 of the singles charts for more than 10 years (1996’s Possibly Maybe), it’s not true that she has forsworn pop music - she has just chosen to approach it in her own way. That said, Volta is not the much-hyped return to commercial pop that many were predicting, possibly because they had spotted the occasional presence of hip hop alchemist Timbaland.
Earth Intruders, with its trademark Timbaland clatter and celestial harmonies, is of course great pop but its coda of deep farting brass, reminiscent of Björk’s more outré experiments, suggests that this is not going to be a straightforward return to the pop fray.
But then comes Wanderlust, a sensational, cloud-skimming pop glide that takes you back to Post’s standout track, Hyperballad, with its nimble, skittering beats and Björk’s full-throated paean to staying on the move and her dislike of her old home, America (« I am leaving this harbour, giving urban a farewell, its habitants seem too keen on God, I cannot stomach their rights and wrongs »). Two fabulous pop gems in a row ? Wow.
It doesn’t last, it wouldn’t be Björk if it did. Yet there’s no dip in quality, apart from the snoozefest that is Vertebrae By Vertebrae, and with Declare Independence, a gorgeous disturbance that buffets you like a train racing past, she delivers possibly the song of the album. It’s true that Volta is not a return to Björk’s past pop glories - it’s much, much better than that.