Wednesday, October 14, 2009

CD Review: BJORK - VOLTA (Universal)

Thursday, May 10, 2007 

There is a considerable case to be made for Björk being the most brilliant and expectation-confounding artist in popular music of the last 20 years. A more prolific and no-less challenging Kate Bush for our times. Fearless in her experimentation and expression and utterly without concession to cultural or industry pressure, Björk has continued to be a proverbial Icelandic geyser of creativity. Even those who don't like her voice must concede she is gifted in choosing collaborators; fashion, filmclip and musical. The resulting gift being that she makes each step uniquely hers whilst giving the freedom each collaborator wishes for, provided they don't threaten her autonomy (just ask Lars Von Trier what happens then).

Volta continues in the same vein. Opening with an army marching through a verdant bower, the album continues with all the force of an alien invasion. Her allied forces vary greatly in their firepower though. Timbaland's productions are as uninspired and repetitive as his recent album (for this Björk must take equal blame being the producer), Antony Hegarty is, as always, himself and he and Björk's voices intertwine to make the hardest hearts swoon, while others including percussionist Chris Corsano, kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté, Brian Chippendale from Lightning Bolt, African collective Konono No 1, Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, and a ten-piece Icelandic brass section are hardly given room to shine given the production - more later.

For once she has not just left or begun a relationship (Homogenic - Goldie, Post - Tricky, Vespertine - Matthew Barney), she has not been infatuated with a city's arts scene Debut - London, Medulla - New York) or collecting music from a film (Selmasongs, Drawing Restraint 9). So what will be the inspiration here? As it turns out it's personal and political independance. In an age where we're living the consequence of 80s hedonism, 90s irony and 00s "self-empowerment at all costs"-manifesto as spouted by Stefani/P!nk/Aguelira and co, it's a brassy (literally) meditation on the consequence of this. But far from being a mediation on loneliness, Volta actually sounds like these manifestos should. Individual.
Stripping away the glass harmonicas, choirs, washes of synth and string ensembles or  any reference to earlier work, Björk again charges into new territory with repetative punching beats, electronic bass and meditations on terrorism (Hope), Scandinavian politics (Declare Independence), geographical freedom (Wanderlust) and her children (My Juvenile).

As is the problem with self-production, there is no one around to tell said artist to edit the excess and keep the point of the song the point of the production. So it is that there is an overuse of muscular electronic beats, vocal reverb (her and Antony...are there two finer voices in modern music? Let them shine) and lyrics such as : "What's the lesser of two evils / if a suicide bomber / made to look pregnant / manages to kill her target / or not?" which as noble as anything else she's written, is trite enough to leave you longing for the days of car-parts bottles and cutlery. Perhaps this is work better through a PA system at a club, as indeed her opus to Greenland and the Faroe Islands Declare Independance must. For the first time in 15 years Björk can be accused of being safe and, yes, lazy. With her second child at the terrible-two's stage of infancy her mind could be forgiven for being elsewhere, as much of the memorable moments are not inspired turns-of-phrase, soaring vocalisations and brilliant combinations of instruments, but the filmclips, the guest appearances and the intimate works (My Juvenile, Pneumonia and I See Who You Are) which stand out.

Certainly, it's a good album, but with the pre-release hype saying this is likely to be her biggest seller, a "return to the fun of her earlier releases" and with the hottest producer in hip-hop on board, expectations can be forgiven for being raised to extraordinary levels. With repeated listens it does reveal greater depths, but dancefloor fillers don't work that way, exuberance is there in the opening seconds of the first listen. Instead, looking for profundity and imagistic explorations, maybe we should be happy with that in Björk's world, this is pop music now, and as always follows a release of an artist this willful...what next?

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