So, the last couple of days I’ve been reacquainting myself with Volta, Björk’s latest album released a year or so ago. The most striking moment on the album has always been Wanderlust, posted below (we’re going to be pretty video heavy, because if there’s one thing Björk knows how to do, it’s collaborate, and so she has many of the most striking and unique music videos you’ll ever see).
One of the most interesting things about this album as a whole, and exposited in this particular song, is how much it’s about travelling. On the video, the opening foghorn ensemble, a motif repeated throughout the album, is one of a sequence of short endtro/intro vignettes, that give the album a sense of place, but constantly different places. There’s a Shamisen (I think) vignette, several foghorns, and various different locations explored. The opening track is Earth Intruders, apparently about invaders from another planet (or simply a statement about the way we despoil our own planet), and you get this relentless sense of movement as she wanders from place to place, falling in love and pondering the morality of terrorism, collaborating with Konono No 1 and Antony Hegarty. It’s a journey, an exploration, constantly moving, and declaring it’s independance constantly. There’s a sense of freedom, as she blends crunk with traditional Japanese instrumentation. She goes everywhere and brings little souvenirs back.
This is the source of her constant reinvention and originality, the ability to grab disparate elements and throw them together, and her wanderlust, which means she’s constantly discovering new things to bring in.
Take the video from her last album, a complete reinvention of the album track using bellringers to locate it on some gravelly wasteland:
Who Is It?
I keep on using the word striking, because that’s the other thing that happens. You’re constantly travelling round with her, finding new places, and being smacked in the face with them. I just found the video to one of my favourite tracks, Triumph of a heart, in which she genuinely tripped and fell half way through the video, it’s left in, along with the nasty graze on her forehead. Literally striking:
Triumph of a Heart
Just for the record, the main theme at the beginning and the end is the original version, and then there’s a special version recorded with the people in the bar. Like I say, constant reinvention. This is the final song on an album of vocal experimentation, featuring the likes of Mike Patton and a Inuit vocalists. The whole thing is incredible, if a little less accessible than some of her other work.
Anyway, back to journeys.
If we look right back to the beginning, we see Debut, a very idiosyncractic and unique album, that wasn’t a touch on the experimentation that was to come, but still had a sense of…well..home. I’ve never been to Iceland, but I imagine this album relates nicely to what it’s like to live there. The following video should get across some of this, though it’s just one of those stills along with an uploaded song, sorry, but it’s the best way to get across my point:
There’s More to Life than this
The really engaging bit here is when she sneaks away from the supposed club performance (the album track is subtitled ‘live at the Milk Bar’) to hide in what is either a toilet or a very quite outside. She starts teasing us, inviting us to get on a boat and listen to her little ghetto blaster. It’s strikingly intimate (there’s that word again…I’ve gotta get me a thesaurus) and a really nice clever bit of production, it totally changes the song, and really captures that adolescent feeling of sneaking out of the party to have your own little special and intimate time.
The key is that sense of location and movement. The track Anchor song is the moving and affecting end of the album, and again it’s about living and losing and loving and diving into the ocean. It may not be just Iceland, but it’s certainly that sense of living in an island wilderness, but feeling like that is home.
Her second album, Post, started to travel out into the big wide world, with her real breakthrough It’s Oh So Quiet, we find an introduction to orchestras and big American musicals. The album has always been the one I least engage with, so I’m not even including a video…how cheap am I? But it’s a solid album, with some lovely tracks. I think it’s probably a simple next step. You leave home, and you feel a sense of amazement and fear, and go wild. This is what she does in Post, and it’s bold and…uh…striking. But not striking enough to ever really wrap me up inside it.
But then she made Homogenic. This album is even bolder, infusing similar structures with much more electronic elements (she started collaborating with Mark Bell at this point, aka Techno legend LFO). The affect is brutal and violent at times but deeply personal. Just listen to the majestic and melancholic strings of Joga, as they are joined by the crunching rolling inevitability of the drums. All layered underneath her almost operatic yet unique voice.
After the initial chorus, the video shows us worlds falling apart. Fault lines in the emotional landscape she’s built.
And this is where we spend this album. It’s an outpouring of emotion, it’s this kind of presented and display of an emotional interior. It explores the way Björk expresses herself. It contains everything, rages and screams and bitterness and a delicate, moving ending. She’s said herself, that the album is very much an outward focussed one, and we explore the landscape of her outwardly presented faces. The album is about emotional landscapes and fault lines. It’s a description, violent and detailed, of how a person declares the state of emergency. Emergence is importance here.
In the romanticised history of my life, which bares only a passing resemblance to real life, I fell in love with one of my exes when she played the track Alarm Call to me, and kept on rewinding it so that I could hear the emotion in her scream. It’s the sort of thing I’d do, and it was special, but I didn’t realise I loved her until long after.
Anyway, the video version of the track is very different to the original, and censors, one of the most (you guessed it) striking moments of the album, Björk’s cry of ‘I’m no fucking buddhist, but this is enlightenment’.
For those following along at home, I think the scream is around 2 minutes 20. It’s got a lot of passion. But it’s not my favourite moment on the album. That’s reserved for:
5 Years (another photo montage I’m afraid, though if you want to see her in the recording studio head here.)
Anyway, for me, it’s her statement of challenge, her roars and screams here, that really drive this album up to miraculous levels. She slaps you in the face with her duelling glove, and then tells you she’s bored. Fucking amazing.
But let’s carry on our journey.
The next step is inward, keeping with the emotional world though. Vespertene takes us deep inside of Björk, and into an inward focussed, intimate and details, almost lonely world.
It seems to follow on directly from the loveliness of the last track of Homogenic (All is full of love), and pick it up in mid relationship. The most intimate and sexual imagery starts off with Cocoon, which has always been one of my favourite songs, both lyrically and musically. There’s a sheer power as Björk beckons us into one of the most intimate moments imaginable. The gentle flickering percussion and the bright reverbing pads of the music act as bedding for a gentle song of love and closeness.
It’s all in the vocals here, Björk’s emotion is purely expressed, building to what sounds like a literal climax. The breath is thematic throughout the song, and then we hear her gasp and breathe more and more as the song pulls forward. It’s important that we hear this aspect, because it prepares us for the sheer physicality of the singer bursting through.
The piece is intensely erotic, without seeming voyeuristic, despite the imagery being incredibly and utterly sexual. The video shows a darker side to this though, as we end with the star of the show wrapped up and hidden in her own passion. Trapped, and taken away? Interesting choice.
Now, that’s certainly the most intimate moment on the album, but the whole thing, drenched in harps and intriguing samples, oozes this kind of intimacy. The journey here is inside someone’s mind, someone’s closest moment. But there’s a constant sense of movement, as typified by another of my musical heroes (M.C. Schmidt of Matmos), tramping through a little box of snow in white tie at the Royal Albert Hall for the performance of Aurora.
Now. I’ve already included two tracks from the next album, Medulla, which I find hard to fit in. It’s the vocal experimentation album, and strikes me as being more about people than places. It’s pure collaboration, and makes perfect sense, teaming up her unique and striking (yeeha) vocals with a range of different textures and styles of voices. Pulling it all together and deconstructing what the voice can do. Sometimes it’s my favourite album, but it is definitely her most difficult.
And that brings me to something else.
What is it that’s so difficult about Bjork? I remember as a young teen not liking her, thinking her voice too eccentric and weird, but that was before my brain had broadened enough to accept anything other than what my brother told me to like. As soon as I developed my own taste, I started seeing something truly amazing in her. The song writing is brilliant, the experimentation wild and all over the place, but it’s all tempered by her vocal flair, ability to express emotion and general verve. There must be enough of her more accessible songs to provide a key to her more difficult work? Surely?
But apparently not.
Anyway, the fact is, what we end up with, back at Volta, is a world traveller. An explorer and wanderer. She’s almost kleptomaniac when it comes to influences, but is more than just some cheap tourist. She inhabits the places she goes, she lives them and then bursts out of them, bursting out with song and movement.
She’d be welcome round here anyway, and I can only dream of where she’d take me. But to be honest, it’s unnecessary, for I feel she’s taken me everywhere already, from deep inside her, to the furthest reaches of the world.
I’m hoping that her next album will be recorded from the surface of Mars, but I’m sure that whatever it is, it’ll be as bold and experimental (and no doubt striking) as anything from another world could be.
Sun in my Mouth