The Siren’s Whale: Icelandic boundary-nudger brings her genius to bear on art-film soundtrack
Björk doesn’t get off on being regarded as pop music’s eccentric aunt.
Or, in the minds of her less-charitable detractors, its half-mad spinster living with her 50 cats in an abandoned lighthouse and sleeping two hours a night because she’s busy hobbling up and down the seashore, yelling obscenities across the dark tide and rubbing fistfuls of wet sand into her armpits. Though she finds amusement in the mythology that’s grown up around her, I doubt she savors the knowledge that many listeners regard her stubbornly idiosyncratic art as somehow contrived to be weird and even willfully unsettling.
Björk does, however, love music desperately. And her definition of music is frustratingly vast—world-swallowing even. Because, in fact, that is precisely what it does. Her art devours ethno-musical traditions from around the globe, organic sounds plucked carefully from nature, synthetic textures belched up by laptop computers; in short, a sphere of inexhaustible nuance. But while your average listener tends to measure the worth of music by its structural logic and melodic accessibility, Björk simply wants to know: What’s the emotional payload? Can you taste it on your tongue? Does it tickle at the base of your spine?
Her newest project, a soundtrack for lover Matthew Barney’s recently completed art-house epic, Drawing Restraint 9, follows in the same tradition as last year’s Medulla. The minimally adorned human voice—alternately sampled, layered, stretched, torn, spliced—serves as the album’s molten center, imbuing the proceedings with a visceral, blood-and-guts physicality that sounds nigh prehistoric in its brute expressiveness. Medulla’s centerpiece, “Oceania,” a track hailing the sea as life’s watery cradle, even presaged thematic elements in Barney’s picture.
Drawing Restraint 9 follows two Occidental guests (played by Barney and Björk) who board a Japanese whaling ship and—upon being bathed and clad in mammal furs in accordance with Shinto marriage rituals—take flensing knives and slice away each other’s feet and thighs, revealing traces of inchoate whale fins. All the while, the tatami mat room they inhabit slowly floods with liquid Vaseline as a storm threatens to tear the ship in half. Once the storm subsides and the ship edges closer to the Antarctic, a pair of whales can be seen trailing along in the boat’s wake.
Björk has always been a sucker for the aesthetically provocative and her most powerful work here seizes on the film’s themes of disintegration and violence leading up to the guests’ eventual rebirth. “Storm,” which accompanies the film’s climactic sequence, reaches a trance-like fervor as Björk’s Icelandic-sung passages dip and weave in lilting wails. Collaborating programmer Leila Arab periodically obliterates Björk’s voice, metamorphosing it seamlessly into digital feedback loops, only to restore it to its haunting, siren-like ferocity moments later.
The tune’s sound-effect backdrop further ratchets up the intensity level; metal joints flex and creak as torrents of water pummel the ship’s hull and lightning and thunder duel with their own brash invectives. But even though it offers the most handsomely rewarding experiential payoff, “Storm” is merely the culmination of a fascinating, sustained emotional crescendo that begins at 0:01 of track one.
Had she been born and raised in America—a country that’s sprawling landmass is dwarfed by the egos of even its lowest-profile celebrities—Björk would likely have evolved into a vainglorious spotlight fetishizer. But she’s not American and the social order is different in Iceland, a country that respects its artists but whose newsstands hardly docu-worship their slightest gesture. Because her ego maintains reasonably healthy proportions, Björk’s not averse to riding shotgun for stretches of her album’s journey, eagerly showcasing the most remarkable fringe musicians whose phone numbers she can track down.
This soundtrack is no exception. When the curtain goes up, Björk’s not even holding the microphone. Opener “Gratitude” features the godfather of freakfolk (and recent Björk tourmate) Will Oldham singing the paraphrased words of a letter from a Japanese whaler to General MacArthur, thanking him for lifting the moratorium on whaling off the coast of Japan. Percussive harp (compliments of Vespertine collaborator Zeena Parkins) and dancing celeste figures augment Oldham’s unassuming delivery, flittering around the song’s half-chanted melody.
Respecting the film’s Japanese context, Björk wrote numerous parts for the sho, a traditional Japanese instrument dating back to the eighth century. The instrument possesses a cluster of 15 slender pipes and emits a reedy high-pitched sound resembling an accordion’s higher register. Performing on the instrument is world-renowned sho player, Mayumi Miyata, whose arresting performances—most notably on the closing track “Antarctic Return”—elevate the soundtrack from functional accoutrement to bona fide musical artifact.
Other highlights include “Bath,” an appropriately naked composition that bristles with the intimacy of Akira Rabelais’s subtly fractured piano treatments and the sensually close-mic’d capture of Björk’s voice—which exposes every nuance down to the occasional snapping string of saliva between her parting lips—and “Ambergris March,” a gorgeous, dizzying collage of chiming glockenspiel and crotales (small, tuned cymbals).
In this cultural moment where a soundtrack’s artistic credibility is measured by its ability to piggyback on the brilliance of James Mercer’s chord changes and/or Sam Beam’s whispery poeticism, Björk graciously peels back the firmament and reminds us that a good soundtrack bears the same responsibility as good cinema: to show us possibilities our dreaming minds couldn’t stitch together.