Björk Gudmundsdottir has the ability to create music both whimsical and melancholy. Her latest release, Selmasongs illustrates this ability to an extreme.
“Sometimes the worse things get, the need to be happy is so big that the songs become happier,” she was quoted in the New York Times. “The times when I wasn’t so happy, I would have the fiercest highs. And then when I am overall satisfied, the peaks are not so sharp.”
It’s like the beauty of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy. To feel extreme joy, extreme pain is needed; it’s the idea of yin-yang in the form of music.
Selmasongs is the companion album to the film Dancer in the Dark directed by Danish born Lars von Trier, who is best known for his film, Breaking the Waves. People tend to either love or despise his work. Björk, who plays the lead in Dancer, won best actress at the Cannes Film Festival this year, despite the boos from the audience. Now the hype for the film and music has skyrocketed, with several articles in the New York Times and a full-length review in the New Yorker. New Yorkers are the lucky ones who got to watch Dancer in the Dark the opening night of the New York Film Festival last Friday.
All I will say about the film, is that it focuses on Selma (Björk), who is a Czech immigrant working in a factory somewhere in Donna Reed-era America. Selma begins to go blind from a hereditary disease and to escape the drudgery of daily life she forms musical scenes in her imagination. The end is tragic, but is supposed to be ultimately uplifting according to Björk.
“We always thought that this was a film with a happy ending,” she was quoted in the New York Times. “That’s one aspect of what the film is trying to say; when the need for something brilliant is so great, you can create it with the human spirit alone.”
But, even without having seen the movie, Selmasongs conveys a similar message through music. Björk produced the songs along with Vincent Mendoza, the conductor for the orchestra on the album. Björk, von Trier, and Icelandic poet Sjon Sigurdsson wrote words for the music that are rather existential.
In “I’ve Seen It All,” Björk keeps singing “I have seen it all,” and converses with Thom Yorke of Radiohead to create a strange dialogue. Björk asks Yorke: “What about China, have you seen the Great Wall,” and his reply is, “All walls are great if the roof doesn’t fall.” Another phrase Björk uses a lot in this song is, “To be honest, I don’t really care.” And in “New World” she sings: “If living is seeing, I’m holding my breath.” The minimalist and enigmatic verses in Selmasongs give listeners a reason to listen to the album over and over to decipher what they could possibly mean.
The music itself is engaging enough to listen to again and again. In only seven songs, it goes from dark and ominous to whimsical and childlike. The album sounds like a mix between a West Side Story type musical and an orchestrated soundtrack from a 1950s melodrama. To maintain the mood, minor keys are used throughout. To correlate with the movie, the percussion comes from noises in the actual film.
“Cvalda” begins with industrial sounds from Selma’s factory as Björk jumps in with gleeful chirps. A flute enters in, creating a cheerful line. Björk then jumps into musical mode, as she sings with Catherine Deneuve, who plays a supporting roll in the movie.
“I’ve Seen It All” is probably the most accessible song. Thom Yorke and Björk blend perfectly in this duet. When they sing minor harmonies, I can feel the tears streak down my cheeks. That’s how powerful the chord structure of this song is.
“Scatterheart” begins with a lullaby-like tune that sounds like it’s coming from an electric music box. Amid drum machine pulses Björk sings over and over: “You’re gonna have to find out for yourself.” Melancholy strings end the song.
“In the Musicals” is just that — a jovial musical-sounding number with lots of clattering and banging.
There’s no need to skip tracks on this album. They all run together smoothly to create a fully satisfying mix of elation and melancholy.
Just as Björk said the tragic end of the movie was supposed to show joy somehow, the last piece, “New World,” conveys hope. Björk sings: “I wonder, I wonder, what happens next…a new day, a new day to see.” The use of horns, combined with drum machine effects, create an assured pulse that invokes looking to the future.
Once again Björk has combined her passion and creativity to explore an artistic vision the world has never known before. Her refusal to compromise her artistic vision allows her to create masterful works. Björk may be whimsical, ethereal, melancholy, and more. But she is always original.