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(Asylum; US: 31 Aug 2004; UK: 30 Aug 2004)

About three quarters of the way through Bjork’s latest LP, I am being pounded in the brain by an Inuit throat singer named Tagaq. This comes as a kind of violent converse to the throaty beats provided earlier by the likes of Shlomo, and Rahzel. And all of this comes in a completely antithetic form to the swooping sopranos of the London and Icelandic choirs. This is, after all, Björk’s much talked about “a capella” album, the creepy, sensual, beguiling, frustrating, ugly, lovely, Medulla. It is, without a doubt, Björk at her most adventurous, an achievement of no small order (simply getting it released at all on a major label is astounding), and one that will frustrate as many fans as it enchants.

I was going to call the album ‘Ink’, because I wanted it to be like that black, 5,000-year-old blood that’s inside us all; an ancient spirit that’s passionate and dark, a spirit that survives.

Medulla starts with a panting in the left ear, a crooning Björk all over, a wall of Icelandic choir and human beat box Rahzel (The Roots) providing the bottom end. The song is called “Pleasure Is All Mine”, and it’s a frightening track. “When in doubt: give / When in doubt: give / When in doubt: give”, its generous lyric providing stunning contrast to an alarming groove. It’s made entirely of vocals; some spliced, some programmed, all apparently originating from human beings, but warped, twisted, and spit out like spattering raindrops.

When I realized the album was becoming a vocal record the musical fascist in me decided using any MCs or vocal percussionists would be too cheesy. I changed my mind when I saw Rahzel freestyle a whole Kraftwerk track without pausing for breath.

Violently menacing, and completely engaging, “Where is the Line” breaks in and out of demonic vocals from Mike Patton (Faith No More), and angelically dissonant swaths of lush singing from the Icelandic choir. Meanwhile, Rahzel completely demolishes any negative expectations you might have of a “human beat box” as he pummels his beats into the mic, leaving you wondering what is processed and what isn’t.

Things get creepier still. “Vökuro” provides some pliability and tenderness to the proceedings, even while Björk and the Icelandic choir conjure up a considerably grand soundscape of epic proportions that leaves you shaken with the spectacle of it all. “Oll Birtan” follows and is the first track on the album featuring layers of vocals consisting solely of Björk as she wraps around herself like the staircases of an Escher painting.

I’m quite inspired by my iPod. Shuffle, it’s the new big thing. I’ve got Missy Elliott, Peaches and John Cage.

“Who Is It” would seem as if it should be the single (it isn’t, “Oceania” gets the nod) as it provides the friendliest, lightest, most kind-hearted melody on an album that sometimes comes across as antagonistic. Sounding as if it would feel right at home on Homogenic or Post the song glides along effortlessly as Björk asks the listener, “Who is it / That never lets you down / Who is it / That gave you back your crown”. Whether it’s an assertion of individualist pride or an acknowledgment of friends and collaborators is hard to tell, but it’s a lifeline to listeners that might be lost at sea at this point.

The ridiculously pretentious “Submarine” might drown them. Guest vocalist Robert Wyatt dominates the track, as its melody, tone, and lyrics seem completely foreign to a Björk album, so much so that it is one instant where Björk crosses the fine line of collaboration and guesting on her own album. The fact that it is a rare stumbling block on an album filled with potential pitfalls is a testament to Bjork’s talent.

“Desired Constellation” makes up for the gaffe in spades. A heavenly mix of rhythmic chirping, and Bjork’s most expressive vocals on the LP, “Constellation” repeats the refrain “How am I going to make it right?” over a minimalist backdrop of clicking specks. It’s the most surprisingly stunning moment on an album that, at times, seems eager to shock. Björk as the nakedly wide-open artist, pleading for an answer to a question that the whole world has been asking as of late.

I need a shelter to, to build an altar / Away from all the Osama’s and Bushes.

Sometimes, when writing record reviews, it’s difficult to find enough moments on an album original or absorbing enough to be worthy of writing about. With all of Medulla‘s faults (and it has its faults), there are enough moments of jaw-dropping inventiveness that a single review is limited in how effective its critique can be (I haven’t even mentioned the incredible closing track, “Triumph of a Heart”).

In the realm of pop music (which Björk still creates within even if her brand of it seems outlandishly left-field) we are often left arms crossed, waiting for the chorus to come and impress us enough to tap a foot, or wiggle a hip. In that capacity it is often easy to forget that the role of the artist is to, at best, push us crashing into realms we’d overlooked or never imagined, and to offer us a glimpse into an imagination that we, as unique individuals, would fail to possess ourselves. In this respect, Björk has achieved this feat brilliantly. Sometimes it’s an uneasy trip and one that might not be undertaken again in the not so distant future. But the important thing is the journey itself, allowing one to step inside something entirely foreign, believing even for an instant in another’s completely native actuality. You may not want to stay there long, but you’ll find yourself experiencing things differently for ever after.

Tagged as: björk
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