Sunday, January 27, 2013

Björk: Volta (2007)



Considerably better than I remembered it being, this is undoubtedly Björk-lite -- but whereas I used to define that as meaning that it was less stridently individualistic than her other work, I now regard it as being perhaps her most out-and-out "fun" record. Though I'd fallen casually hard for Selmasongs and Medulla in previous years, it was during the promotion and touring cycle for Volta that I became a devoted fan, resulting perhaps in my sentimental attachment to its warped, colorful grooves. Really, its best function is as a collection of agreeable Björk ideas and concepts that just don't necessarily form a coherent whole -- drop most of its songs somewhere in the middle of Vespertine and you won't notice a severe dip in quality.

You will, however, notice that the ever-restless auteur has discovered and wrapped herself around industrial dance music, the influence of which is the real story here despite Timbaland's far-and-wide ballyhooed involvement. There's a lot of this on the two keynote protest songs -- I guess they're protest songs, I dunno: "Earth Intruders" and "Declare Independence" amount to a kind of defiant nonconformity that's sort of quaint in its simplicity, at least by this artist's standards. It's like she read some Embrace Your Quirk self-help manual. You barely need to hear either song to know where they're headed; the titles say everything. "Intruders," the opener, is anthemic cartoon-army march; "Independence" toys with international affairs in 3D world. It's as direct as Björk's ever been, to the point that she got in hilarious hot water for singing it with political-hotbed dedications around the world, but its giddy pretensions to revolution are hard to look upon as dangerous. "Don't let them do that to you," she chants like she's on a PSA, and six years have failed to dull the ability of the "make your own flag" refrain to make me chuckle. Then again, there is menace and chaos here -- it just feels a little safe.

Not so for the best of the industrial-infected cuts, "Wanderlust," a truly blown-out production mixed awkwardly and brilliantly with a sweet, soaring melody. The most sinister of these songs, though, is also the most plodding -- the Radiohead ("National Anthem")-like Satanic funeral march of "Vertebrae by Vertebrae," to which the stark and rainy "Pneumonia" seems a mere coda. That song-to-song relationship is striking, the sense of prelude and resolution, because Volta as a whole seems so curiously haphazard in terms of design and sequence. Each track seems its own world unto itself with little sense of contrast and larger rhythm working outward. Maybe that's why these songs seem better on your Björk Spotify playlist than they do when heard end-to-end.

We'd better talk about Timbaland, though, and I do love Timbaland; in the vein of his gloriously busy configurations with Missy Elliott, the joyous industrial-pop piece "Innocence" has genuine hooks and a dancefloor abrasiveness that sound like all the best things that "Björk collaborating with Timbaland" might suggest in your imagination. For all his name involvement and all the pop appeal of the song itself, its grit and dirtiness are to be praised; her voice cracks and the arrangement hurls itself out in a fit of the anti-slick. Not that you can tell, but the lyrics are more from the motivational section: "Fear is a powerful drug / Overcome it and you can do anything!"

The non-Timbaland arrangements are, oddly enough, typically riskier and less obvious. Though it's easily argued that African and Asian music had already long been in Björk's orbit and lexicon, Volta does make some advancements here, particularly on the percussive and sensual "Hope" and the frayed lullaby "I See Who You Are." Yet on the whole, the weirdly sunny optimism on these songs is far more a consequence of the ever-growing nuance of Björk's vocals, which are better than ever before here (and would improve yet more on the otherwise merely pleasant Biophilia). Her interaction with the brass -- oh, that's the other thing about Volta: horns, lots and lots of horns -- on "Wanderlust" is nearly as endearing as the double-tracking that renders her joy that much more audible in her performance. And her duet with Antony Hegarty "The Dull Flame of Desire" may have nothing on "I've Seen It All," but it's maybe the most fascinatingly oddball Björk moment of the last decade. This is Hallmark crooning, an artifact of the purest saccharine branches of baroque pop, delivered with almost militaristic precision and sincerity. What? It's a mark of Volta's MO, I suppose (and Björk's career in general), that its strangest and most surprising moment is the one that'd seem most conventional in any other context. But in sum -- you know who you are and whether you need this.

Selmasongs (2000)
Biophilia (2011)

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