Whenever the title of a new Bjork record is announced, my brain immediately springs into free association mode. It may just be due to the fact that her album titles are always so evocatively succinct - Debut, Post, Telegram, Homogenic, Vespertine, Medulla - maybe not the kinds of words a psychologist would use for a diagnostic examination, but certainly fun to ponder. But they are all, also, remarkably accurate indicators of the ideas, both musical and otherwise, that seem to drive her records. Bjork’s newest album is called Volta. Let the free associations begin.
The northwest African country of Burkina Faso used to be called Upper Volta. I know this from an outdated world atlas and gazetteer that I had when I was a child - one of my favorite "toys". It was so named because it occupied the region where the Volta River originates. The fifth longest river in Africa, the Volta runs through Ghana, is dammed at Akosombo to create the gigantic V-shaped Lake Volta, the largest man-made lake in the world, and drains into the Bay of Guinea. Volta also sounds like "volt" or "voltage" suggesting electrical wiring and distribution ; or "revolt", like some kind of violent political rebellion ; or "revolting" - something disgusting, distasteful, extremely unpleasant.
For the uninitiated, and even, at times, for devoted fans (think of the soundtrack she did for Matthew Barney’s avant-garde art film Drawing Restraint 9), the act of sitting through a Bjork album can, indeed, be extremely - prohibitively - unpleasant. As excited as we may be about the prospect of a new Bjork record, there is always, also, a very justifiable apprehension that goes along with that excitement - like riding a new roller coaster for the first time. In general, I’m one to steer clear of roller coasters. But I can understand how wonderful and thrilling they must seem to the people who enjoy them. Similarly, I love Bjork - and I really do get a visceral sense of excitement when there’s a new Bjork record on the way. But I can totally understand why some (many) people might opt to make a trip over the concession stand or find the restroom while waiting for the others to get through the line for this particular amusement.
On the other hand, despite my reservations about roller coasters, I have, in the past, been persuaded onto some "less challenging" coasters by either strident peer pressure or, under less duress, by my son’s excitement about wanting to go on them (and James’s more stubborn refusal to ride). And I’ve found that I’ve really had fun on some roller coasters. I like the Medusa at Mt. Olympus in Wisconsin Dells. And I had a blast riding Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, and Big Splash Mountain in rapid succession at Disneyworld a couple years ago. Not enough fun to want to try something more extreme, maybe (No, thank you, Rock n’ Rollercoaster !) - but definitely enough to maybe want to ride one I’ve already enjoyed again.
And it is in this spirit, Gentle Reader, that I look to you like a googly-eyed 12 year-old who really really really really pretty-please-with-a-cherry-on-top triple dog dares you to please please please please please set aside your Bjork-related phobias, or, if you can’t totally set them aside, then suppress them momentarily ; or, hell, why not pretend you’re an Amazing Race contestant (hey, they went Iceland one time - and it was gorgeous !) and face those phobias head on, and take a listen to Volta. Yes, it is a Bjork record, and yes, I understand that you’re scared - and that’s valid - but truly, this may be the least scary Bjork record to come out in some time - and it boasts what may be her most transparent attempt ever (perhaps her only transparent attempt ever) to get serious top 40 airplay in the form of a collaboration with hip-hop producer Timbaland, who is currently enjoying some of the highest commercial times of his venerated career.
Of course, I can’t really be held responsible for that last paragraph, being under the influence of the Kool-Aid provided me by a high-level executive at the Atlantic Records Group desperate to generate some serious numbers for the new Bjork record. Here’s a reality check : Timbaland or no, it’s still Bjork, and Bjork is, more than just about any other artist out there right now, immune to Timbaland’s hitmaking (not to mention ho-making) prowess. The lead single "Earth Intruders" may bear Mr. Mosley’s production and co-writing credit, but the song is undeniably Bjork, as proven by her thrillingly tribal performance of it on a recent edition of Saturday Night Live - a mind-melding hybrid of reductive pop hook, ancient ceremonial chant, military mud-march percussion, apocalyptic 80s-style synthesizer effects, sandwich board pronouncements of end times panic (turmoil ! carnage !) and full-belt diva verses. This is a distinctly Bjork-ish fusion that, quite conceivably, might have occurred with or without Timbaland’s assistance. The big difference is really in how marketable that fusion becomes with Tim’s name attached - the "great crossover potential" (to quote the title of a greatest hits record for Bjork’s former band The Sugarcubes).
More truth in marketing : Timbaland is only credited on three tracks here ( - in addition to "Earth Intruders", the likely follow-up single "Innocence" - an avant-garde, 21st Century re-write of "Like a Virgin" on a violently skittering beat which sounds like a brutalized leftover from Tim’s sessions with Nelly Furtado ; and a noodly, amorphous ballad (one of several that pop up later in the record) called "Hope". For the casual MTV2 viewer or the suckered TRL voter, or really for anyone not particularly fond of Bjork’s brand of musical rollercoastering, these tracks will prove the extent of Volta’s tolerability.
Which is generally good news for Bjork devotees, as the remainder of Volta is as challengingly beautiful and artfully seductive as any of her best work ; and marks a welcome return - after the crystalline delicacy of Vespertine and the just-a-little-bit-too-intimate experimentalism of Medulla - to the sweeping, beat-heavy romance and electro-symphonic grandeur of Post and Homogenic. "Wanderlust" is a swoony torchsong melody worthy of a James Bond movie score, only with explosive, woofer-busting percussion noises, which give Bjork’s extravagant vocal performance a disquietingly violent edge. Songs like "I Know Who You Are" and "Pneumonia" cover similar terrain, hypnotically braiding together images of sex and death - let’s celebrate now all this flesh on our bones - over ever-unstable, ever-morphing harmonic combinations.
At times, especially later in the album, there are hints of the spare, exotic instrumentation that marked that otherworldly arias of Drawing Restraint 9 (though, mercifully, no Noh Theatre-style vocalizations), along with a fairly new interest in North African style string sounds, reminiscent of the quieter moments of Blur’s Think Tank album. (Portions of the album were recorded in Mali and Tunisia.) In the closing "My Juvenile", Bjork duets with transgendered singer Antony over a improvised latticework of clavichord pluckings.
But, just as often, the songs are bedded in lush, stately brass arrangements (by Bjork herself), more French horn than trumpet, as on the album’s centerpiece, a sprawling, seven-and-a-half-minute pop fugue centered around a darkly romantic 19th Century poem by Fyodor Tyutchev called "The Dull Flame of Desire" with creeping intimations of sexual domination. Here, the horns are formal and fanfarish, as plush as an overstuffed quilt, suitable for the court of a decadent European monarch, and Bjork (sometimes, in multi-layered vocals) and Antony (always just one Antony) joust and jockey with the poem’s lines, Bjork alternating between quiet seduction and violently playful, playfully violent exclamations, while Antony’s strangely soulful, lightly lisped, quivering croon shifts from prayerfulness to ecstatic plea, all as a ritual, tribal, pounding beat threatens to overtake them both and finally does. The song’s polar opposite comes later with "Declare Independence" a noisy, non-musical war cry delivered in a brittle, alien rasp.
This is the essence of Volta, a musical vortex between the primal and the refined, the profane and the decorous, the ancient and the futuristic, the feudal and the tribal - a conflagration fueled by sex and violence. As with most of Bjork’s albums, the songwriting is uneven and sometimes, inscrutable. There are wild inconsistencies is the song’s various finishes, with some tracks coming across polished and fully developed and lush, while others feel like glorified doodles. But the individual songs are secondary to the experience of the album as a whole, which, as usual, is sonically and conceptually dazzling - if maybe not as gimmicky as her a capella concept for Medulla. My only real complaint with the album is its infuriating packaging, a glossy-finished variation of the cardboard digipak with two flaps that open like a book in front, and a third that opens up behind them, which also contains a pocket holding the booklet. Holding the two front flaps together is a sticker (a graphic of Bjork in a typically ridiculous costume, resembling nothing so much as an acid hallucination of a walking dayglo zucchini - the front cover’s only graphic) which you have to unpeel in order to get at the CD. Most annoying.