The Artist takes her point of view for granted, to the extent that she annoys or confounds anyone caught up in chasing the “truth.” Or, she fascinates us in the same way we’re drawn to religious and other mystical figures. Yet, despite the cultural roles of artists as spiritual alchemists and conduits to where all of our trials and errors are given spectacular treatments and endearing portraits, we balk when they appear to have indulged themselves. Why is this? I understand that indulgence is supposed to be a sin, a crime against humanity and nature, but artists are among the very few whose responsibility for discovery supercedes an obligation to personal restraint. After all, don’t they usually pay for this by existing in a perpetually tortured state? Most artists toil in obscurity, driven by nothing more than a vague compulsion to “create,” so self-indulgence is the least I can grant them in exchange for a few bits of divinity.
And then there’s Björk. She seems pretty indulgent, and despite the enigmatic, moderately antisocial persona, I’ve never quite understood why I called her an artist. As artistic qualifiers go, eccentricity is beyond superficial; it’s downright misleading in most cases, and no matter the number of interesting musical concepts with which she aligns herself, I always figured “real” artists had to deliver a few concrete answers now and then. Answers, if not about my world, then about Björk’s. I watched her sing “Oceania” (the first single from Medulla, though don’t try buying it, it’s not for sale– the artist strikes again!) at the Olympics, and it occurred to me that beyond the usual promotional gears at work, somebody must really feel she’s important. They could have had anyone– say, a reassuring Celine Dion or a physically ideal Beyonce– but they chose a prickly, decidedly uncomfortable Icelandic woman. On aesthetic grounds, I can’t argue with their choice, but I continue to wonder about Björk’s significance.
Medulla suggests that if she is artistically important– and I should preface all of this by stating I don’t normally evaluate music or musicians based on my perception of their “importance”; Björk simply makes it difficult to do otherwise– it’s as a small scale model of the same individualist, mundane obsessions that dominate popular culture. Just as television networks bank on our interest in reality, Björk’s emotional impact seems dependent on one’s fascination with her. Medulla (her fifth album, and first since 2001’s imperfect, introspective Vespertine) presents no set of ideas more compelling than those concerning its creator, her whims and impressions. That it’s her a cappella record is just an interesting bonus, as it’s no more or less “her” than any of her records.
Ironically, the sound of Björk “getting to the essence” of herself is more dependent on outside musicians than usual. In addition to producing collaborators Mark Bell, Matmos and Mark “Spike” Stent, Björk enlists the vocal talents of The Roots’ Rahzel, Japanese beat-boxing wonder Dokaka, American freak-patron Mike Patton and English progressive pop icon Robert Wyatt, among others. Medulla is the result of concentrated efforts on behalf of the best and brightest Björk could round up, and in the spirit of her symbolic godfather Miles Davis, betrays her knack for using talent to her best advantage. Use of the human voice on this album will get the headlines, but the bulk of the story is rote Björk.
That said, Medulla is her most musically adventurous record since Post. “Where Is the Line?”, featuring Patton’s growl, an eerie choral arrangement and ingenious, jackhammer rhythm track powered by Rahzel and edited by Bell. Björk’s melody doesn’t seem particularly interesting until you try to follow along amidst the cut-up beats and falling, wailing choral voices. The machine-gun-precise percussive hits, accentuated by Patton’s bullfrog squelch, hit harder than anything she’s done since “Army of Me”. “Pleasure Is All Mine” begins as seductive, wordless call and panting, before melting into lush, gorgeously arranged harmonies and Björk’s dream-noir melody. She uses Patton’s lower register to flesh out the arrangement, and her own singing is as powerfully resonant as anything I’ve heard from her. Throughout the album, Björk’s commitment to bringing out the strength of her melodies, despite considerable opportunity to get lost in the wall of sound, is admirable and the mark of someone who understands the importance of serving her songs.
“Oceania” has been marketed as the “radio single,” though with its bizarre, swooping soprano lines and cyclical chord progression outlined by a chorus of Wyatt vocal samples, is hardly the most obvious choice to sell Medulla. I’d have chosen the considerably more upbeat “Who Is It”, which reminds me of “Alarm Call” from Homogenic in the way it applies Björk’s idiosyncratic performances to a traditionally pleasant sounding template– though “Who Is It” features a much more interesting chord progression during the verses, and an altogether incredible rhythm track, again provided by Rahzel. The only other song on the record that might conceivably work on the radio (sans remix) is the house-y closer “Triumph of a Heart”, featuring Dokaka’s mouth percussion.
The more atmospheric songs on Medulla are arguably its most evocative and powerful. “Vokuro” (or “Vigil”) is one of two songs sung in Björk’s native Icelandic, and is in fact an adaptation of a piano piece by Jorunn Vidar. Björk sings its plaintive strains accompanied by a solemn choir, and brings out its inherently hymn-like qualities. Wyatt overwhelms “Submarine” with his ghostly, striking vocals, thickly layered and overdubbed. Björk doesn’t even enter with the melody for almost a minute-and-a-half, by which time Wyatt has already made his redoubtable mark. Not to be outdone, Björk’s collage of sighs, whispers, cries and otherwise indescribable sounds on “Ancestors” might scare fans accustomed to a steady diet of actual songs. It reminds me of the work of American experimental vocalist and composer Meredith Monk (Björk has performed her “Gotham Lullaby” in concert several times), though some folks may just hear it as the “unlistenable” song on Medulla.
Medulla is an interesting record. It continues Björk’s run of releases that sound nothing like their predecessors, yet is, as ever, particular to her. Furthermore, she’s found a way to bathe her immediately distinctive melodies and vocal nuances in a solutions that cause me to reevaluate her voice and her craft. I shouldn’t be surprised: She’s made a career of making me interested in her world of sound. And that she doesn’t appear to be short on ideas 25 years into her professional career should end all speculation.
–Dominique Leone, August 30th, 2004