Wire

Soundcheck - Medúlla

Given the attention lavished recently on Björk’s back catalogue, you might think she has been fixing her eyes more on the past than the future. But Medúlla, her first album since 2001’s Vespertine, is possibly the most daring record she’s ever made, opting for a far starker and more strident sound than its predecessor.

The opening “Pleasure Is All Mine” establishes Medúlla’s credentials — densely atmospheric, slightly hard to read. A keening vocal ululation rises with eerie intensity, its surreal, erotic horror movie overtones compounded by breathless, close-miked female panting and a throaty suspicion of male laughter. It achieves its fraught effect using little more than the human voice and a smattering of programmed percussion.

Medúlla was not originally conceived as a bold a cappella experiment. It started life three years ago as a special guest and instrument-laden extravaganza, recorded in 12 locations including New York, Iceland and Venice. But as the title suggests (it’s Latin for “marrow”), Björk eventually felt the need to strip away the accumulated layers, to get back to the essentials of the songs — the vocal melodies.

Consequently, there are moments of absolute simplicity. “Show Me Forgiveness” is a fleeting snatch of plainchant, a single prayerlike vocal adorned only by a tastefully ecclesiastical reverb. Sung in Icelandic, “Vokuro” is based on a piano piece by composer Jórunn Vidar and features a 20 voice choir ; it belongs more to the soundworld of the 19th century than the 21st, combining the sweet astringency of a Victorian carol with the stately, filigree counterpoint of a Brahms motet.

Still, Medúlla is mostly a modernist experience, with Björk using her store of vocal takes as digitally processed building blocks. “Oll Birtan” and “Wednesday” combine chopped up vocal fragments, a single repeated syllable providing a rhythmic pulse, and other phrases to produce dizzying interwoven textures. “Submarine” opens with a fluttering, wordless whimpering reminiscent of Stockhausen’s Stimmung. But Robert Wyatt’s reedy innocence enters to bring a welcome, fragile light and a dazed, incantatory yearning : “Do it now,” he implores, “Shake us out of a heavy deep sleep.” Soaring over the long, low burr of a bass voice, Björk’s contribution is one of the album’s finest moments.

“Who Is It” is Medúlla’s most approachable track. Propelled by skittering, post-Garage rhythm programming and rich, rolling bass frequencies, it flowers into a classically Björkian stratospheric chorus reminiscent of “Hyperballad”. Yet there are endless exploratory details beneath the surface. A backmasked cymbal is revealed as a serpentine indrawn breath, with countless vocal snippets clustering and twitching like insects in the recesses of the mix.

Medúlla is not a complete success. “Desired Constellation” is disquietingly banal and “Piano II” descends into a cacophonous melée of frenzied cries, tortured gasps and gruff, doglike growls. “Where Is The Line” is a lumpen and spasmodic agglutination of unruly elements, shoved along by tumbling, staccato thumps and rasping, Fairlighted throat singing. The quirky, limp disco of “Triumph Of A Heart”, meanwhile, closes the album on an equivocal note.

At its best, Medúlla breezes with a sense of serendipitous discovery, with Björk’s singing (when unprogrammed) as sublime as ever. But the odd, mannered juxtapositions and abrupt endings arouse the suspicion that its apparently radical modus operandi is actually a salvage operation — despite the tarnished treasure to be found in its swirling, oceanic depths.

Chris Sharp

publié dans Wire - 01.09.2004

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