Somewhere in a faraway, enchanting land, across seas made of marbled cerulean spider webs, in an igloo made of unicorn hair and elvish mithril, there lives a wonderful faery princess who wears nothing but dresses made of golden goose feathers and spends her days crafting intricate, delicate but ornate albums, like sonic Faberge eggs.
Somewhere in a faraway, enchanting land, across seas made of marbled cerulean spider webs, in an igloo made of unicorn hair and elvish mithril, there lives a wonderful faery princess who wears nothing but dresses made of golden goose feathers and spends her days crafting intricate, delicate but ornate albums, like sonic Faberge eggs. Rumor has it she also farts magical pixie dust, but there’s no confirmation at press time.
She is, of course, Bjork.
Bjork has made a career out of doing the unexpected on her albums, and for a long time, each new album trumped its predecessor. That upward trend came to an end on 2004’s Medulla, a mostly a capella experiment that seemed to satisfy a lot of Bjork’s curiosity but was far from the accessible eccentricity of Homogenic or Vespertine.
Her sixth and newest effort, Volta, is collaboration-heavy, with the androgynous, vibrato-laden voice of Antony Hegarty (of Antony & the Johnsons) on two songs, and the drumming of Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale and Sonic Youth’s Chris Corsano. As usual, Mark Bell’s beat programming is ever-present.
There’s also the lesser-known but equally important thumb piano work of Konono N��1 and Toumani Diabate, a musician famed for his mastery of the kora, a West African stringed gourd instrument that sounds something like a cross between a harp and a flamenco guitar.
“So, how does this all come together?” you may be wondering. Well, it’s a weird, amoebous album that sounds at once improvised and pre-conceived. The Timbaland-produced opening track, “Earth Intruders,” is a wonderful beginning, with its infectiously skronky fuzzed-out synth bass line and percussion section comprised of stomping feet. The song has everything Bjork’s audience wants from her: a melody, an appropriately peculiar hook, and some lyrics that can be understood and even interpreted without knowing what Bjork was thinking when she wrote them. This song is a bit of a red herring, though, as it’s likely the only song a listener will remember when the album is done.
Much of the rest of the album is rather scattered and seemingly unfocused, with meandering vocal lines, rather than deliberate melodies and hooks. This is both good and bad, as the album has the feeling of being “new” on each listen. Even after several listens, Bjork’s vocal lines sound like live improvisations on what were at one time established ideas.
This album feels like it was created in the bays of Iceland, probably because of the abundance of foghorns and the brass sections that remind us of them. The second track, “Wanderlust,” slowly builds up from such a foghorn/brass loop, then enter Bjork’s vocals, then the dancey drum loops enter and it feels like she’s dancing around the world.
The third track, “The Dull Flame of Desire,” is a little reminiscent of the Selmasongs soundtrack album. Antony duets with Bjork on this track, which is all brass band and a slowly building drum set. And it’s not a bad song, but at seven and a half minutes it’s a bit of a snoozer. You can’t fault her for being ambitious.
Up next is “Innocence,” a mid-tempo song that is really a lot of fun. The Timbaland-produced song is built around a sample of a grunt, some specifically placed bass drum notes, and a wiry, ’80s-sounding synth.
“I See Who You Are” is an intimate, drum-free song that would be entirely forgettable if it wasn’t for Bjork’s relentlessly appealing voice. This song has virtually no distinct melody, but the singing is too uniquely mesmeric to skip over.
“Vertebrae by Vertebrae” is another drum ‘n’ brass (sic) song, which unfortunately has another vocal line that is anything but symmetric. It’s kind of a linear melody, starting at one place, then wandering around the map, then finally arriving five minutes later at the other end. “Pneumonia” is all brass, vocals, and the sound of rain. And the vocal line is uniquely Bjork, but unfortunately doesn’t give the listener anything to grasp. So after four or five listens, the song is still forgettable. The drums make a return to the fore in “Hope,” which features an Indian-sounding drum sample, a hyper kora, which sounds like it’s improvising as much as Bjork is.
“Declare Independence” is another album highlight, because of the weird, fuzzed-out bass line, the danceable beat. When she sings, “Declare independence / don’t let them do that to you / make your own flag / raise your flag / damn colonists / ignore their patronizing,” it sounds like we’re hearing Bjork’s personal ethos for album-making.
The album closes with “My Juvenile,” which is a quiet, personal ode to Bjork’s son, featuring Antony’s vocals again.
In the end, it’s not a huge disappointment to hear a less-than-perfect effort from such a hugely creative artist, but hopefully she’ll write more fully-realized songs before releasing her next work. Half-baked Bjork is still better than most artists’ best efforts anyway.