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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Björk: Volta


1) Earth Intruders; 2) Wanderlust; 3) The Dull Flame Of Desire; 4) Innocence; 5) I See Who You Are; 6) Vertebrae By Vertebrae; 7) Pneumonia; 8) Hope; 9) Declare Independence; 10) My Juvenile.

The higher you rise, the lower you get to fall — unless you happen to die young, this rule knows very few exceptions. Coming from a nobody, Volta would be a great success; coming from Björk, it is her first album to be known as a major disappointment, sometimes even for big fans, since it clearly shows signs of stagnation. Up until Vespertine, each new album was a leap forward in some respect; Medúlla took that leaping to near-absurd heights — and in the process of leaping, it seems as if the genius finally cracked her spine.

If you do come to terms with the fact that Volta reveals no new amazing details about the artistic world of Björk, the record will be easier to deal with. Stepping a few steps back from the wild, unbridled experimentalism of Medúlla, she returns to the world of musical instruments and pro­grammed beats, once again with the aid of her regular producer Mark Bell, but also enlisting hip-hop/R&B producer Timbaland to add some computerized African rhythmics to the songs. Vari­ous collaborations, such as with the pipa player Min Xiao-fen on ʽI See Who You Areʼ, or the two vocal duets with Antony Hegarty, add color and diversity, and then there's ʽDeclare Indepen­denceʼ, her first big venture into the world of musical politics, whose performance in China, dedicated to Tibet, helped stir up controversy and shit. So far, so good.

What is hopelessly, despairingly bad is that Volta just goes nowhere. On her previous albums, Björk had showed herself to be a master of catchy hooks and a master of atmospherics — you could hum these songs till your humming machine ran out of fuel, and you could be carried away into a parallel (or perpendicular) world by almost any of them. The melodies of Volta, however, retain the influence of the experimentalism of Medúlla — with maybe just a couple of exceptions, Björk is now only interested in continuing the same «free-form» approach of singing, delivering her lines as if they came from a Shostakovich opera (or, at least, anything post-Wagnerian, to broaden the scope of comparison). The vocal melodies continue to be carefully designed, not im­provised, but the endless dissonances and lack of resolutions eventually begin to irritate — not to mention that there is really nothing new or fresh about this approach.

As far as atmosphere is concerned, Volta is strikingly minimalistic. In a way, so were large parts of Vespertine, but there the minimalism was essential to the album's «cocoon» image; Volta has a well-defined extrovert character, and could benefit from some more of those grandiose, imagi­native orchestrations, as on Homogenic. Instead, you get beats, beats, and more beats — some­times just beats, sometimes beats mixed with a single lead instrument, usually an exotic one (the pipa on ʽI See Who You Areʼ, or Toumani Diabaté's kora on ʽHopeʼ). The beats are relatively complex, but hardly ever defying imagination — and the lead instruments are nice, but, as it so often happens with «world music», usually devoid of individual identity. That identity should be provided by the singer — and this is exactly what does not happen.

Of the two «rocking» tracks, ʽEarth Intrudersʼ is arguably the better one: with a singalong chorus and a bit of cosmic humor attached, it is as good an introduction to the album as could probably have been thought of. Still, compared to ʽHunterʼ, it ends up looking like a novelty number — kiddie carnival music, incapable of burrowing deep into your subconscience, because the electro­nic textures all concentrate on tribal beats rather than psychedelic synthesizer tapestries. As for ʽDeclare Independenceʼ, it is simply not the kind of approach I could ever associate with Björk: the song is about as naturally flowing as Paul McCartney's ʽFreedomʼ, and even if you happen to share those bluntly stated sentiments ("raise your flag! start your own currency!"), the song still sounds rather dumb. Just leave the big social statements to Bono, will ya?

The two duets with Hegarty are disappointing: I do share the required-acquired-taste to enjoy Antony and The Johnsons, but on ʽThe Dull Flame Of Desireʼ, Antony is used more like a con­venient lackey for Björk's own purposes, which are not far removed from those of Medúlla — create a multi-layered, dissonant, confusing vocal tapestry and see where that takes you. I find the results pretentious («get two highly idiosyncratic, uniquely expressive singers for the price of one!») and superfluous — the singers do not manage to find perfect balance (contrary to, say, the duet with Thom Yorke on ʽI've Seen It Allʼ, where there was actual dialog and mutual understan­ding between the protagonists), and, at worst, the song just spills over into ear-splitting disso­nance that cancels out their mutual strength. ʽMy Juvenileʼ is a little better, but, again, I could easily do with just Björk's "down the corridor I send warmth...", discarding Antony's "intentions were pure..." bit altogether.

Everything else just sort of blurs together into a chaotic, generally senseless mix of beats, pipas, and songs that seem like pale shadows of something bigger and better (ʽVertebrae By Vertebraeʼ, for instance, strives to convey the sense of constant search and struggle, but the musical backing is so bland and the main vocal melody so unmemorable that it simply has no reason to exist next to something like, say, ʽHyper-Balladʼ). This is just Björk on autopilot — relying on all too fami­liar Björkisms for lack of anything more interesting. And while the lack of radically new ideas, per se, should not bother me (not even the greatest genius can generate radically new ideas for unlimited amounts of time), the lack of memorable tracks and impressive atmospherics most de­finitely does. There is not a single song on here that managed to truly woo me over, and for that, the album gets a thumbs down. Oh, and the album cover is quite ridiculous, too. More fit for some J-pop record or something.


  1. No Drawing Restraint 9? Too obvious a thumb down to be reviewed?

    Anyway, Volta. While its the first undeniable step down in Bjork's discography, if we cut out some really weak tracks on the second half, we'll have a pretty good EP with the following tracklist:

    1) Earth Intruders
    2) Wanderlust
    3) The Dull Flame Of Desire
    4) Innocence
    5) I See Who You Are
    6) Declare Independence

    That warrants a thumb up, imo. But we can agree to disagree of course.

    1. I hate Volta, but Drawing Restraint 9 is great, I think. Too experimental maybe, but still... Volta is dull.

  2. "If you do come to terms with the fact that Volta reveals no new amazing details about the artistic world of Björk"
    Now I'm not a fan of Björk at all, but I have always thought this unreasonable. Not every single symphony and piano concerto of Mozart and Haydn (and there are many of them) "reveal amazing details about their artistic worlds" either. Still that these works are highly appreciated. Why set the standards so absurdly high for Björk?

    1. I would say that an album is understood as being more of a major statement in the world of popular music today than a single symphony or concerto was in 18th century classical music (a Haydn or Mozart symphonic work is usually about half as long as an LP, and it wasn't unusual for them to write three in a year; even in the 60s, pop albums weren't made at that pace). As long as there was a gradual development, which of course there was, it wasn't necessary for every single new work to sound radically new.

      A closer analogy might be the operas of Mozart, or the symphonies of Beethoven (which are certainly each supposed to be a major statement) - and they almost always DO each contain something amazingly new. And when they, at least in some people's opinion, don't - as in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito or Beethoven's fourth symphony - they do receive negative criticism for it. (Though that criticism usually acknowledges that those works still contain some beautiful music, as Starostin acknowledges that Volta COULD have had strong melodies or atmospherics even without doing anything new.)

  3. You make some good points in your review. However, I guess it's again a case of one listener simply having a different outlook to another - I love this album, and in spite of it maybe not being a "leap forward", it's one of her most listenable to me. Once again, a great collection that flows beautifully - with the inter-sonng ambient soundscapes adding to the cohesiveness. A great mix of the more abstract "art" Bjork and the energetic, almost violent beat-driven one who came up in Iceland's post-punk era. I think it is a fantastic listen, but I like your review nevertheless.

  4. The production is my biggest issue with this album. Vespertine was low-key and intimate, but it sounded absolutely vast; there was a whole world within it. The sounds on Volta are bold but confined; they're so obviously intended to be "forceful" but are neutered by the mixing. I don't know if it's a question of dynamic range or channel separation or what, but I'm not a producer either - someone of Timbaland's stature should have understood how to give the sound some real weight. And that's when he's playing to his strengths; when he tries for subtlety on songs like "The Dull Flame of Desire" or "Pneumonia", it's all mush. As it stands, the "loud" parts all come off as pulled punches, and the "quiet" parts only get by on the guest instrumentation.