The reality that pop music—capable of accommodating endless permutations of the same essential form—has evolved in any meaningful fashion is wondrously strange. Even musicians considered textbook iconoclasts have conformed to the same instrumental formula as rock’s earliest purveyors. The Clash’s blistering political discontent incited a generation of British youth to question the establishment and its inherited value system, but the band’s arsenal—guitar, bass, drums—contented itself in the status quo. As if we needed proof: these are wonderfully inexhaustible building blocks.
Of course, along came the computer age, which further peeled back the ceiling on what was considered possible. The synthetic quality of modern life found yet another expression, another cathartic voice, in manufactured sound. All of a sudden, musicians who spent their acne-bothered pubescence indoors staring at computer monitors and resentfully butchering piano scales found themselves holding the power. Synthesized music emerged and musicians turned their focus toward its full-scale exploitation in the interest of patching together some novel approach.
For many artists, it wasn’t enough to revitalize rock’s established “classical” form; say, strumming a dismally familiar I-IV-V chord progression on a Rickenbacker electric guitar fed through a vintage VOX amplifier and reheating an old Beatles vocal melody—admittedly derivative, but seldom a bad recipe. True genius, as they understood it, meant defying convention. For instance, you might consider looping the flutter of a Scissor-tailed Hummingbird’s wings, recorded in zero gravity, through a metal pipe, and then screaming Portuguese obscenities over the mix until your vocal chords are shredded raw (keep in mind, a film documentary of this quest may prove more lucrative than the sound recording itself).
As we’ve learned from studying genetics, however, the overwhelming majority of DNA mutations prove maladaptive; they simply cause functional and developmental aberrations, ultimately speeding the affected organism’s demise. The same holds true in music. But then there are contemporary artists who, like Darwin’s finches before them, have mutated in ways that equipped them to survive beyond their allotted 15 minutes or so. Some have even altered music for the better—The Flaming Lips, David Byrne, Radiohead, Wilco. And, of course, Björk, whose newest creation, Medúlla, sprouted legs and crawled ashore in late August.
For the uninitiated listener, Medúlla appears to have hitchhiked its way 300 million light years across space to earth aboard a hurling meteor from an infinitesimally-distant spiral galaxy called Zentron-IV, whose snow-covered planets house 18-headed spider-like organisms who survive by drinking interstellar dust through lidless silver eyes.
“Ancestors” (easily the most bizarre cut on Medúlla) opens with a series of exaggerated sighs, the kind of melodramatic vocalizations with which choirs or drama groups often warm up their voices prior to a performance. A little odd, perhaps, but innocuous enough from a listening standpoint, considering the sighs are accompanied by measured piano lines. But as the four-minute track unfolds, the listless sigh splits
amoeba-like into a chorus of similar female voices which alternately sing unintelligible words or moan distractedly. The keening sigh—our protagonist, if you will—eventually ramps up into a hyperventilated gasp, rendered even more unsettling by the introduction of a (computerized, I pray) bestial grunt that can only be described as a warthog on the verge of climax.
If the opening track of Sigur Rós’ ( ) scored the blissful surreality of a drug trip and Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” outlined the compelling reasons to escape life’s mundanity, “Ancestors” provides the chilling side-effect of hallucinating insects crawling over or into your skin. You may be tempted to write the track off as nothing more than a puzzling vocal experiment. But Björk is nothing if not intentional, pointing out in recent interviews that part of her design with Medúlla was to create a sonic context that draws on a pre-civilized approach to music. After all, the voice remains the most personal and foundational instrument humans possess, and Björk boldly pares the majority of her arrangements down to a resounding latticework of harmonizing voices, while allowing for the occasional programmed beat or rhythmic texture. “I wanted the record to be like muscle, blood, flesh,” Björk explains. “We could be in a cave somewhere and one person would start singing, and another person would sing a beat and then the next person sing a melody.”
When asked during a Q&A on her website which one person had the greatest influence on the sound of Medúlla, Björk’s reply consisted of a single harrowing word: “Osama.” Having moved to Manhattan shortly before 9/11 and given birth to daughter Isadora amid a climate suffused with terror, paranoia and warmongering, Björk weaves into Medúlla a palpable longing for a simpler world—a world predating smart bombs and collapsing towers, a world in which life revolved around the expressive raising of one’s voice, both solitarily and in concert with others.
In order to adequately realize this primal collaborative feel, Björk enlisted such idiosyncratic talents as Faith No More/Mr. Bungle frontman Mike Patton, Inuit throat singer Tagaq, classical singer/human trombonist Gregory Purnhagen, both the Icelandic and London Choirs and the world’s most accomplished human beatboxes (Japan’s Dokaka, the U.K.’s Shlomo, and former Roots member Rahzel). Previous collaborators Mark Bell and Matmos also show up on the album, bringing Björk’s creative brain trust to an almost combustible level of virtuosity.
The opener, “Pleasure Is All Mine,” begins with a subtle vocal harmony set atop a woman’s metronomic panting (more exhausted than erotic), which carries on a short while before easing listeners into the verse. Once Björk’s voice erupts into song, a powerful choir joins her, filling the background with an arresting flood of cathedral-resonant harmonies. Björk follows up this track with a short confessional anthem sung a cappella, reminding listeners that her robust singing voice can still, unaided, imbue a simple heartfelt melody with unfathomable heft, the emotional equivalent of a mountain-carving glacier: “Show me forgiveness / For having lost faith in myself / And let my own interior up / To inferior forces / The shame is endless.”
The pulsing sonic undulations and subdivided pitter-pat rhythms shaping “Desired Constellation” provide a celestial backdrop for Björk’s repeated cry of “How am I going to make it right?” Make what right, you ask? While my interpretation could easily be skewed by the towering stacks of newly cut protest CDs piling ever-higher on my desk, I wouldn’t be surprised if the havoc inflicted upon Iraq through the American-led War On Terror inspired this sorrowful outrage. Sounds like a reach, but not if the opening verse sheds any light: “It’s tricky when you feel someone / Has done something on your behalf / It’s slippery when your sense of justice murmurs underneath and is asking you….” Once more, but not for the last time, she implores: “How am I going to make it right?”
Björk doesn’t place her hope in politics, but rather in the potential of people to realize the interconnectedness and common origins of all humanity. The album’s first single, “Oceania”—which she performed during the Olympic opening ceremonies and wrote for the occasion—calls listeners’ attention to “Mother Oceania” from which she believes all life emerged: “You have done well for yourselves / Since you left my wet embrace / And crawled ashore … Your sweat is salty / I am why.” The song anchors the mid-section of the album, jubilantly punctuated with bubbling synth and propelled by the rolling, spitfire cadence of Rahzel’s beatbox.
Medúlla arrives at a time when every last one of us would do well to remember the indomitable power of the human voice, and that—no matter how sickeningly FUBAR the state of our world becomes—music will always provide a means for imposing order on chaos. After all, there’s plenty of beauty to be found if you’ve got the sense to recognize it—even the deviant, mystifying variety Björk is adept at not only recognizing, but coaxing onto tape for our benefit.