Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Earth From The Air: Bjork's Volta

I’m aware that this is going to sound incredibly snobbish, but there’s this lingering sense that the rock and pop press consistently underestimate Bjork. Predictably, Volta has received universal plaudits so far, but very much of the four-out-of-five-stars, take-her-for-granted kind. ‘Volta’ is a sixth remarkable album in a sequence that has seen Bjork expand her reach fearlessly with every new recording. It is therefore manifestly absurd that a dependably brilliant new Bjork album should be accorded the same ratings as, say, the latest dull offering from Kasabian. Let’s be absolutely clear about this – Bjork is quite peerless in contemporary pop music. There is no other artist prepared to push themselves quite as far, to manipulate their voice to such intense effect, to be as upfront about their influences whilst striving to expand the language of modern music. Her passionate combination of the mechanical innovations of electronic music with an emotional honesty and warmth often lacking in the work of other comparably experimental performers marks her out as a unique and massively significant artist.

She has rarely ever followed trends or expectations, and it’s therefore no surprise that the pre-release talk of ‘Volta’ representing a return to ‘commerciality’ after the ‘introspective’ approach of ‘Vespertine’ and ‘Medulla’ has turned out to be complete piffle. If anything, ‘Volta’ draws as much from her recent soundtrack for husband Matthew Barney’s ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ as any of her previous albums proper. There’s perhaps more of an abandonment of conventional song structure and melody here than on any of her previous works, and the unconventional instrumentation imbues the accompaniment with unusual and compelling textures.

Perhaps it’s precisely this individualism and isolation that has led most commentators, with justifiable surprise, to focus on the presence of R’n’B mastermind Timbaland here. This comes in spite of the fact that his contributions are arguably more gimmicky and less significant than those of the many other collaborators here (including Bjork regular Mark Bell, Congolese mavericks Konono No.1, avant drummers Chris Corsano and Brian Chippendale and the master Kora player Toumani Diabate).

If ‘Medulla’ focussed on the sound of the human voice, then ‘Volta’ focuses on the combination of primal rhythms and exquisite, cinematic horn arrangements that sound both vivid and alien. It opens with the delightfully groovy ‘Earth Intruders’, something of a close relation to ‘Human Behaviour’ with its rolling tom drums from Corsano. The lyrics are characteristically bonkers, with Bjork ranting about ‘necessary voodoo’ and ‘metallic carnage’ (although the Dr. Who fan in me genuinely mistook the latter for ‘The Dalek College’). The vocal phrasing is in itself intensely percussive, and it’s fascinating to hear how voice and drums intertwine effortlessly. The distorted thumb pianos of Konono No. 1 emphasise the juxtaposition between the traditional and the shock of the new.

The horns make their first entrance on the quite astounding ‘Wanderlust’, in which Bjork falls into some kind of existential rapture (‘I have lost my origin and I don’t want to find it again’). There’s a genuine sense of awe and mystery here that justifies her use of this suddenly in vogue song title (the REM song of the same name sadly had nothing of the sort). Her voice is also at its most forceful and intimidating, and for all those complaining of a lack of melody, there’s definitely a tune here, unconventional as it may be. The prominence of the polyphonic horn arrangements continues with ‘Dull Flame of Desire’, a lengthy duet with Antony Hegarty that slowly unravels into something weirdly compelling. It seems very much a love song, and as such probably the least oblique song in the set. ‘Vertebrae by Vertebrae’ somehow makes the horns bigger, bolstering them with military percussion. The song is full of curious imagery and Bjork’s vocal twists and turns in entirely unexpected directions. Later, on ‘Pneumonia’, we get Bjork’s voice set along against the horns, which creates a particularly eerie and discomforting effect.

‘Innocence’ stands out as the moment where Timbaland is given some kind of freedom, the beat being particularly syncopated and off-kilter. It also features some odd samples that could easily have come from an old Sega beat-em-up console game. Luckily, the song itself is exquisite, with Bjork singing candidly about self discovery and the onset of sexual awareness (‘to my surprise, I grew to like boys!’) whilst maintaining that the original innocence is still there, simply ‘in different places’. I’m not sure that anybody writes about sex and sexuality quite as convincingly and honestly as Bjork (return to the quite wonderful ‘Cocoon’ from ‘Vespertine’, a song characterised by real musical and lyrical intimacy to match its subject matter). As a result, it was precisely the ‘introspection’ of ‘Vespertine’ and ‘Medulla’ that made them so masterful. I’m therefore grateful that she allows some of that approach to remain on Volta, most notably on the gorgeous ‘I See Who You Are’, in which she sings boldly ‘let’s celebrate now, this flesh on our bones!’. Toumani Diabate’s kora adds exotic flavour.

Bjork has declared that she aimed to return to some kind of rhythmically charged, toe-tapping dance music with ‘Volta’, and this is most clear with the relentlessly punishing ‘Declare Independence’, which sounds remarkably close to something you might hear on a compilation from outrageous London nightclub KashPoint. It has a thumping four-to-the-floor kick drum relentlessly propelling it, and is as confrontational a statement of individuality and liberation as Bjork has yet penned.

The two trickiest songs here are ‘Hope’ and the closing ‘My Juvenile’, for which Antony returns as Bjork’s ‘conscience’. On the former, she sings ‘what’s the lesser of two evils, if a suicide bomber made to look pregnant manages to kill her target or not’. She’s mangling the English language here, but I suppose her real question is whether the success of failure of an act of terrorism makes any difference to how we should judge it. Musically, it is a sublime combination of subtle electronic glitches with Diabate’s lush, delicate kora. ‘My Juvenile’ is bizarrely ambiguous – it could be about falling in love with someone too young, it could be about protecting her child – who knows? Bjork sings ‘My juvenile, I truly say you are my biggest love…one last embrace to tie a sacred ribbon’. Antony justifies it all with ‘the intentions were pure’. It’s a very strange, intensely personal song that concludes the album on an intimate and mysterious note.

Of all Bjork’s albums, ‘Volta’ may be the most stylistically diverse and uncompromising. It doesn’t have the consistent intimate warmth of ‘Vespertine’ for example. Yet there’s a sense of Bjork achieving some kind of transcendence here, observing life on earth from somewhere higher, and translating her observations into a mysterious and ambiguous language. There’s also a dynamic and strident theatricality to Bjork’s vocal performances. Given a few listens, I suspect it will reveal itself as another masterpiece.

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