Music

Björk: Medulla

Michael Beaumont

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.


Björk

Medulla

Label: Asylum
US Release Date: 2004-08-31
UK Release Date: 2004-08-30
Amazon
iTunes

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".

Music

The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?

Music

Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.

Music

Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.

Music

Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.

Music

Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.

Film

Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.

Books

Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.

Music

Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.

Film

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.