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


Television


Recent
Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Music

Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.

Music

Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.

Music

The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.

Music

Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.

Film

In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?

Music

Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.

Music

Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Music

Titan to Tachyons' Experimental Heaviness on Full Display via "Earth, And Squidless" (premiere)

Featuring current members of Imperial Triumphant, Titan to Tachyons break incredible new ground in the realm of heavy music.

Music

Jerry Leger Teams with Moby Grape's Don Stevenson for "Halfway 'Til Gone" (premiere)

Reminiscent of Lee Hazlewood and the Everly Brothers, Jerry Leger's "Halfway 'Til Gone" is available on all streaming platforms on 6 August.

Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

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.