Our favorite Icelandic pixie songstress is back with her sixth album. Volta is a grouchy affair, whether burning hot with big beats and booming vocals or brewing in a bad mood. Evaluated purely for its placement along her artistic trajectory, the record finds Björk successfully pushing into new realms, moving restlessly and relentlessly forward. As with 2004’s Medúlla, however, the trails that she blazes are sometimes difficult for the listener to navigate. In case you hadn’t noticed yet, Björk is out there.
Volta is an album full of pairings, as Björk collaborates with an eclectic array of guests to her fortress of laptopping solitude. The most exciting of these teamings is with Timbaland, who co-produced the two poppiest tracks on the album, lead single “Earth Intruders” and “Innocence”. The former, which opens the record, finds the artist looking back over her shoulder at her bouncier work from Debut and Post. The beat is squelchy, yet tribal in the fluidity of its groove. Lyrically aggressive, Björk has joined an army of many, proclaiming, “We are the earth intruders / We are the sharpshooters” and “With our feet marching / Grinding the skeptics into the soil”. The other Timbaland assist, “Innocence”, begins with a sharp guttural cough for a beat, as synth sounds squiggle and squirm throughout the song. On both of these cuts, Björk’s vocals growl and rise in ecstasy in ways we’ve sorely missed since the ‘90s.
Another match made in heaven occurs when Antony (minus his Johnsons) lends his unearthly voice to the mix. He is an archangel with a busted wing, an opera singer on skid row, a transgendered alien trilling a lullaby to slumbering humanity. Joining Björk and him on the Arvo Pärt-like “Dull Flame of Desire” are a decet of female brass players and singers, backed by a low, slow, skittering beat. The song is a smoldering beauty, looking at love “through the downcast lashes”. On “My Juvenile”, Björk duets again with Antony, accompanied only by fragile, broken keyboard phrasings. It’s pretty enough, but not as compelling as “Dull Flame”.
Björk also brought in Toumani Diabate, the stellar kora player from Mali, whose instrument sounds like a harp, but with a guitar’s sharper attack. His contributions to “Hope” are beautiful, although the track itself isn’t terribly engaging, as if Björk didn’t bother to conceptualize a melody and, instead, just sings in a directionless, generically Björky way. From another continent is Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen’s buddying up with Björk for the restrained “I See Who You Are”. This track works better than “Hope”, especially once the vocal overdubs and horns usher in a lusher, fuller sound.
BJÖRK [Photo: Erez Sabag]
Some songs on Volta are just Björk, relying mostly on herself and her 10 ladies of brass. Her singing soars again on “Wanderlust”, as soft-shoe breakbeats dart and jab along with medieval trumpeting tones. “Declare Independence” is a pissed-off foot-stomper, but the lyrics are condescending and worthy only of bumper stickers. Björk tells the downtrodden people to “Declare independence / Don’t let them do that to you” and “Raise your flag / Higher, higher”. Yes, of course! Gaining political autonomy from an oppressor is just that simple. But it’s a good live track, and would probably sound killer pumping out of a pair of Goodwill speakers strapped to the back of some well-strafed rebel Humvee. “Vertebrae by Vertebrae”, meanwhile, marches to the beat of a very different drum loop, along with some really dark and prickly blurts of brass. Compositionally, it’s interesting, but it’s damn hard to actually like.
And herein lies the art versus entertainment debate. While its reflexively easy to say that, oh sure, music is an art form, in execution it frequently falls closer to the “please don’t make me use my brain” end of the continuum where much of television lies. Björk, though, creates with the mind frame of a painter, with at least as much concern for the possibilities of the palette as for what the finished piece might communicate. If you get it, great; if not, at least you’ve exposed yourself to a potentially enriching experience. The worth of such an experience lies in the ears of the listener. By no measure is Volta a great album, but it is quite good. And, the deeper you delve, the more it has to offer.