Saturday, September 11, 2004

So, about that new Björk album, "Medulla": It's a wowzer. Björk steps back from the electronica trip-hop feel of much her earlier work, and unveils an album of sounds almost entirely created by the human voice. It's like Ladysmith Black Mambazo meets Sigur Ros meets Radiohead, but really, since it's Björk, it's pretty much impossible to compare to anyone else. The Icelandic pixie isn't for everyone, and if you're not already a fan of her poignant Nordic wail, you probably won't dig "Medulla." But I love it so far, and think it's one of the best, boldest records of the year.

You hear a variety of sounds here -- ulating cries, looming choirs, bizarre "beat box" grunts and bass beats, even a "human trombone" in one song -- all mixed with Björk's floating croon. It's utterly alien, not the kind of tunes you want to crank up at a party, but this experiment really works at creating a whole new world of music. There are a few ghostly hints of instruments here, a dash of piano or an occasional drumbeat, but it's as close to an a capella album as you can get. It also has an eerie, fragile warmth that makes it feel more emotional and honest to me than earlier Björk albums like "Post" or "Debut." I've seen reviews calling it "challenging," but it's more rewarding than work.

Highlights abound, such as the fantastic "Where Is The Line," where Björk is joined in the infectious chorus by the Icelandic Choir, former "Faith No More" singer Mike Patton and more as noise builds up into an apocalpytic kind of release. Or there's "Who Is It" or "Oceania," more traditional song structures livened up by dashes of odd sound. Björk also moves between singing in English and Icelandic throughout "Medulla." "Ancestors" feels like a seance between the dead and the living, with bizarre grunting "throat singing," moans and croaks as the song breaks down, reforms itself and breaks down again. The final song, "Triumph of the Heart," has a joyful release that sums up the sheer happiness most of this record has. "Medulla" is an album of layers, rewarding repeat lisening with new textures and tones. I think Björk's work has been all about combining a tribal beat-pounding passion with a celestial awe, and "Medulla" does her best job yet of achieving that. It's a little marvel.

(Addendum: A really fascinating profile of Björk's recording of "Medulla" in Iceland appeared in The New Yorker magazine by Alex Ross a few weeks back. Can't find a link to it online but it's definitely worth seeking out.)

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