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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Björk: Medúlla


1) Pleasure Is All Mine; 2) Show Me Forgiveness; 3) Where Is The Line?; 4) Vökuró; 5) Öll Birtan; 6) Who Is It; 7) Submarine; 8) Desired Constellation; 9) Oceania; 10) Sonnets/Unrealities XI; 11) Ancestors; 12) Mouth's Cradle; 13) Miðvikudags; 14) Triumph Of A Heart.

Can you say «I am a huge Björk fan, but I hate this album» without running into an oxymoron? Very very clearly, Medúlla is exactly the kind of album she wanted to make in 2004, an album over which (like over everything else) she had full creative control, and an album that nobody could not call «bold» and «adventurous». So how could a huge Björk fan hate this album? Would it not be like saying «I'm a good Catholic, but I really hate Holy Communion?»...

To get a serious answer, let us think of it this way. There is no doubt that Björk's greatest and most unique asset is her immediately recognizable voice and the way she uses it — love it, hate it, but you will not confound it with anything else in the world: people who are only familiar with the artist on a, let's say, vaguely tangential level will always remember her as «that amazing / annoying singer» first and foremost. But this tends to overshadow her other strengths — namely, that she is also a gifted songwriter and arranger, and that she is an extremely talented «advocate of beauty», being one of the very few people in the 1990s who managed to find a completely fresh, mind-opening way to convey the sense of beauty. Mind-opening, yes, but also generally accessible — once you manage to overcome the first shock, getting to like records like Post, Homogenic, or even Vespertine is really not that hard.

The biggest mistake of Medúlla, I think, is in that Björk oversetimated her own talents, and de­liberately threw herself off balance. As unique as that voice is, it is a big, big question whether anybody really wants, or needs, to listen to a whole album of Björk singing close to accappella — or, in extreme cases, listen to an album of a million billion chopped-up Björks interacting with each other like a flock of drunken birds on a wire. The experience is about as weird as the cover of the album, and seems more like a deliberate provocation than a sincere experiment.

There is no doubt that a lot of work went into the album. Each of the tracks is very carefully put together, with multiple samples arranged in rhythmic, often symmetric patterns, while the pri­mary vocal melodies still explore relations between harmony and dissonance like they did when she was still a part of The Sugarcubes. The problem is that this is the first time in Björk history where it gets really hard to discern any substance beyond the form. The album may be brave enough to invent its own sub-genre (call it «math-vocalize» if you wish), but inventing a vital genre does amount to a little something extra than just the classic manner of «putting things on top of other things». And I struggle in vain to find that extra — and while I struggle, the vocals just grow more and more and more irritating, until we're almost in Yokoland.

Some of the comparatively more «normal» songs clearly indicate that talent has not abandoned the lady: ʽWho Is Itʼ, for instance, would not be out of place on Vespertine: deceptively released as the album's lead single, it is one of those intimate love songs, with a little bit of accompanying paranoia, that could well be taken with you inside the «cocoon». But most of the time is being spent bending that talent out of shape: melodies are distorted, twisted, superimposed in brutal ways that require a complete reevaluation of your musical preconceptions. Are you ready to come out with such a reevaluation, or are you not?

Something like ʽAncestorsʼ, one of the key tracks on the record (because Björk herself said that the album title should represent the «5,000 year-old blood that's inside us all»), may be taken as the ultimately diagnostic element. «Loving» it is hardly possible, or at least, natural — taking it as a sonically symbolic representation of the various biological and cultural strains hidden out there in our DNA and our brain tissue is possible, but if so, Medúlla becomes a «performance act», a purely brain-oriented venture that, frankly speaking, reeks of gimmickry and self-indul­gence. As far as I am concerned, all these guttural noises and dissonant notes only serve to irritate the senses — for a genuine summoning of the «beast within», you're on far more secure territory with Iggy Pop and the Stooges than these ridiculously scattered quacks, roars, and wails (for that matter, ʽColdsweatʼ by The Sugarcubes did far more to remind me of the «5,000 year-old blood» than any of these tracks).

The ultimate downside is that, for all of its «boldness», Medúlla gives nothing essentially new. If you took any of the classic Björk albums, stripped them naked of their instrumental melodies, and then hacked up and interspersed the vocal harmonies, that'd be Medúlla in a nutshell — the only difference being that it is Björk herself here, deconstructing her own music. Yes, I admire her iron will and her decision not to stagnate / grow old / fade away at any cost, but you know, be­hind the superficially groundbreaking textures of Medúlla there might actually lurk a subcon­scious fear of not having anything more to say.

Alas, the more I listen to the record, the more I am becoming convinced of this scenario: Medúlla is a certain Björk-specific way of refusing to age gracefully — her personal equivalent of the Rolling Stones' Undercover, as formally dif­ferent as those albums are. On the other hand, this also makes me feel relieved: if this album only pretends to be «bold» and «adventurous», I can still call myself a huge fan of Björk in some respect — a huge fan of her «before-jumping-the-shark» period, that is, whereas Medúlla is clearly on the other side of the shark, and receives a certified thumbs down rating from me. 


  1. I understand why you dislike the album (and far better to dislike it than to just wave it away in indecision like you did before), but I can only see it as the apex of Björk's work. She has the same emotional melodic sensibility as always, the same vocal power and scope, but employs them within the most original and flat-out strange vision that she's ever had. (Jean-Michel Jarre's Zoolook has nothing on this.) Even setting the a cappella sounds aside, some of those harmonies are really beyond the pale. But while you dismiss this all as overreaching, overexerted ambition, I can't help but be awed by it. The sound, far from the sparseness that I feared before hearing the album, is rich and subtle - not to say that there aren't sparse songs, but "Show Me Forgiveness" is hardly representative of an album where fully-arranged material like "Pleasure Is All Mine" and "Mouth's Cradle" predominates. And the unorthodox harmonies, though certainly unlike anything else in Western popular music (I won't speak for the rest of the world's traditions, as there are likely many out there that diverge even further from what we're accustomed to), do work wonderfully if you let them, especially when bits of familiarity jump out from the surrounding weirdness (like those lovely little "whooOOOoo!"s in "Oceania", which always make me think of the coral kingdoms that you see in old cartoons). Put simply, this is the album that most completely fulfills that "emotional alien ambassador" persona of Björk's that you've pointed out yourself. I love Post, Homogenic, and Vespertine, but this is truly something else. And that "something else" may be just what you don't want from Björk, but I couldn't be happier.

    1. On the other hand, I do admit that "Ancestors" doesn't work. It's impressive that Björk has learned throat-singing (if that is her), but that doesn't count for much when the "song" itself is just a pile of (often downright ugly) mush.

    2. I think your assessment is a good one. This is surely another "thumbs up" project from Bjork. I do sometimes wish that she had kept more of the 'accessible' elements that made her earlier work so widely regarded, but the more esoteric journey she ended up taking is equally fascinating. Medulla still contains several 'immediate' songs, and while depending on one's mood, the 'heavier' cuts can be fairly numerous on this album, I just consider them to be something other than 'po' music. I listen to these works as examples of the 'contemporary experimental music' genre. And they are quite magical. The arrangements and production are outstanding, so even just on the level of listening to the collection of sounds, it is fascinating. But then you realise that even these abstract compositions are just wonderfully thought out journeys.

  2. "The ultimate downside is that, for all of its «boldness», Medúlla gives nothing essentially new. If you took any of the classic Björk albums, stripped them naked of their instrumental melodies, and then hacked up and interspersed the vocal harmonies, that'd be Medúlla in a nutshell... Medúlla is a certain Björk-specific way of refusing to age gracefully — her personal equivalent of the Rolling Stones' Undercover, as formally dif­ferent as those albums are."

    This is astute.

  3. I love to listen to this album when I don't want to listen to any music at all. It doesn't sound as "music" to me, but as a mix of dry sounds. Or, at least, a diffent kind of music. But, ok, this is very similar to her usual style. Anyway, I disagree that it's not good enough for a thumbs up.

  4. I agree with the assessment that Medulla underplays her talent as a songwriter and arranger. On the other hand, I find that the songs here are still well-written enough to be another winner.

    Maybe I'm biased because Medulla is my first Bjork album... together with the Greatest Hits, which is funny actually. It seems like everyone is stumped with Medulla and call it unlistenable, but Medulla actually clicked with me better on first few listens while Greatest Hits just rubbed me off the wrong way (although Greatest Hits won in the long run). I think Medulla is a very well-written album at heart, it's just that the lack of arrangement threw people off-balance.

    That being said, Submarine and Ancestors are definite signs that Bjork is starting to become too pretentious for her own ass.