Breath Control: Bjork's inner core strikes an inner chord
Bjork, Medulla (Elektra) reviewed by matthew webber
A friend who didn't know Bjork except from a Saturday Night Live parody of her once asked me what kind of music she made. "Like, what genre of music is she? Where would I find her in a record store?"
I said I couldn't classify her; she creates her own genre. "Think of her like the Missy Elliot of Icelandic chamber pop," I said, comparing her to someone more familiar, where "pop" meant popular or anything non-classical and "familiar" meant someone on the radio and MTV.
"Strip away the weird instrumentation, and listen to the melodies, and Bjork songs sound like musicals." Then I showed him the "It's Oh So Quiet" video for proof, because it actually is a musical.
"And listen to her voice. No matter how animal or primal it sounds, it never goes out of tune. She can always control it. She uses it like an instrument, even when she's screaming or cooing in a kind of baby talk. That's why she's my favorite female singer. No one else sounds like her, because no one else dares to try. Sometimes her voice gives me shivers. Sometimes I forget to breathe."
Medulla, n., the title of Bjork's new album, means the inner core of human organs. Or, "medulla oblongata," n., means the lowermost portion of the brain that connects to the spinal cord and controls circulation, respiration, and other bodily functions. Either way, it means Bjork has stripped away her unclassifiable, complicated, polyrhythmic Icelandic chamber-pop musicals of their previous techno blips and orchestral bombast to find her music's inner core.
This doesn't mean she has simplified her music. Although she has mostly stripped away all instrumentation other than the shiver-inducing instrument of her voice and other human voices, what remains is something that can maybe no longer be classified as pop, nor maybe even world music; something that deserves its own place in the record store, or else a space next to Radiohead, the only other major-label group of such critical and commercial clout in recent memory to throw away their proven hit-making formula to make music that some fans will call unlistenable. Medulla, Bjork's a cappella choral album, is unclassifiable, complicated, and polyrhythmic. It is an example of what music critics mean when they say something is "challenging."
Even I always say I liked Radiohead better back when they were writing actual songs, but maybe this is the difference between Radiohead and Bjork, since Bjork didn't just start changing, evolving, maturing, experimenting, qua qua qua on her fourth album. When has any Bjork album sounded like the previous one? Perhaps Post and Homogenic come the closest to resembling each other, although now that I've listened to Medulla twice in one day, I've started to hear traces of her last album, Vespertine - well, with less of that album's clavichords and harps - and, of course, her English syntax remains the same, identifiable hers.
(Here's how peerless it is: Once, while watching Madonna's second collection of video hits, the phrasing in one of the songs struck me as particularly Bjorkian. The credits at the end of the collection confirmed my suspicion that Bjork had co-written the song.)
Every serious pop artist pays lip service to growing up, especially female pop vocalists who want to be taken seriously, but only Bjork does it every single record. This is why Medulla is no surprise. This is also why it is, in fact, challenging, and why some of the album's wow,-that-voice-sounds-like-a-bird moments are unpretty, grating, and skip-able. Barring some inventive dance remixes, these songs will find less radio and video play than Vespertine's did, which means future Bjork singles will soon approach zero spins.
Some people, if they ever hear Medulla, will hate it, of course. This is not music the way years of 3:30-long songs with regimented verse-chorus-bridge structures have conditioned us to hear it. But, barring some Bjork fan working at your local college radio station or non-franchised coffee shop, non-Bjork fans will no longer be confronted with her. This album is Bjork's Icelandic choir singing to Bjork's choir of fans, which means the album will not find any crossover success unless it actually does get marketed to world or choral music aficionados. I don't hear a single.
Did I like Bjork back when she was writing songs? Here's the thing: She still is. (And after dozens of Kid A and Amnesiac spins, I know Radiohead is, too.) It only took me two listens to hear them. "Where Is the Line" and "Triumph of the Heart" are my percussive favorites, with their beats by human beat box Rahzel from the Roots and their melodies out of some inner core of warmth.
(Faith No More/Mr. Bungle/numerous side projects-frontman Mike Patton also vocalizes on the album, making Bjork more valuable in a six-degrees-of-separation game. Try John Mayer to Bjork in two degrees.)
Other Bjork fans will get this. People who would never listen to songs sung in Icelandic or featuring the poetry of e.e. cummings will not. This album is not for fans of wanna-be serious pop vocalists.
But her breath control can still inspire me to forget to breathe.
If my friend were to ask me if I like this album, I'd tell him, "Yes, but I don't think you will."
According to the liner notes, "Triumph of the Heart" features a human trombone player. And you've got to love an album with a human trombone player.