Iceland’s freest spirit declares her independence… again
When Madonna or David Bowie enlists the latest production gurus to spice up their music, the results frequently come off sounding desperate, as if the pop chameleons needed that brush with youthful creativity to maintain some sense of self-relevance. Not so with Björk, who at 41 still engages thoroughly whomever or whatever she chooses to work with. When she mixes it up with hip-hop-producer-du-jour Timbaland on militaristic stomp “Earth Intruders”—the opening track from her new album, Volta—the result bears little resemblance to what you’d hear on other Timbaland collaborations (i.e. Missy Elliott or Justin Timberlake).
The supercharged techno of “Earth Intruders”—in which Björk wails, “There is turmoil out there; carnage, rambling”—segues into the deep, flatulent calm of fog horns, squeaking seagulls and sloshing water. These sounds introduce “Wanderlust,” in which Iceland’s freest spirit announces in a heavily echoed voice, over rich brass instruments and chirping beats, “I have lost my origin and I don’t want to find it again.”
Volta is named for the Italian verb meaning “to turn,” but it’s also sometimes used as a literary reference to a quick change of direction, thought or emotion near the end of a sonnet. Indeed, if there’s a mission statement to Björk’s Volta, it’s that life is a series of spontaneous voyages to places that are by turns dark as night and fleetingly colorful, like a misty rainbow just out of reach. She runs the sonic gamut throughout, blending the delicate plucking of a West African kora (a 21-string harp) with fuzzed-up beats in a song about suicide bombers; singing over nothing but French horns and the pitter-patter of rainfall in a beautiful ode to female empowerment; punctuating a husky industrial song about the drug-like allure of fear with a sample of an explosive James Brown-like groan.
Volta’s thematic thread doesn’t pull you in immediately. Before sitting down to type this review, I listened to the album in every conceivable setting: hunched over the computer in my office, lying in a hammock in the back yard, standing over the sink washing dishes, walking to the grocery store with headphones on. It wasn’t until the fifth spin, when I chunked the disc into the car stereo and took off for a cruise into the countryside, that the album’s essence nuzzled its way into my heart like a new religion.
It only makes sense that a car ride to nowhere in particular would be the appropriate milieu for a set of music that, as its title suggests, changes thought, direction and emotion at every turn. In “The Dull flame of Desire,” Björk duets with velvet-voiced indie crooner Antony Hegarty on a gorgeous song that poetically contemplates the nature of passion. Amid the harpstrings of “Hope”—her peculiar take on suicide bombers—she poses the question, “What’s the lesser of two evils: If a suicide bomber, made to look pregnant, manages to kill her target / Or not? / If she kills them / Or dies in vain?” Björk’s answer is equally as abstruse: “Nature has fixed no limits on our hopes.” And over an onslaught of distorted, Sonic Youth-like noise-rock near the disc’s end, her treated vocals scream out a series of platitudes: “Declare independence! Don’t let them do that to you! Protect your language! Raise your flag!”
Fortunately, we don’t look to Björk for logical answers to pressing political questions. Her voice, the blending of musical styles and the remarkable collaborations on Volta raise larger spiritual and emotional issues for which lyrics alone offer only one small layer of meaning. For all its bluster and whiplash-inducing musical changes, Volta seems a very personal meditation on the state of being Björk. Somehow, all the chaos of the first nine tracks transitions perfectly into the final one, a gorgeous paean to her 20-year-old son, in which Björk gently apologizes to him for maybe letting him be a little overly independent during his childhood. “Perhaps I set you too free, too fast, too young,” she sings.
Far from sounding like the desperate ramblings of a rock veteran unsure of her place in contemporary popular music, these songs are the ruminations of an artist still very much on her journey. Still, Volta doesn’t hold together musically as well as Björk’s vocal-heavy 2004 disc, Medúlla; instead, she has combined elements of various prior projects, from her predominantly pop recordings to her more experimental soundtrack work. In a time when some listeners dismiss albums that don’t grab with the first spin, Volta has received some fairly lukewarm notices. But, though it may take time for this record to work its magic, when it does, the effect is well worth the effort.