CLASSIC REVIEW: Björk, Medúlla
With her first four solo records, Björk laid down a strong foundation for her lengthy and successful career that still trudges on to this very day. Debut saw her transitioning away from her previous band, The Sugarcubes, and into more British and American sounds like jazz-fusion, IDM and club. Just like the following Post, it was a sampler plate of what her sound could evolve into. It was experimental for the time, but as she grew more popular, she began to shift the norms and bend the mainstream to her will. In the ‘70s, a track like “Army of Me” would’ve been considered alien music, but the ‘90s was the time of Björk. MTV was interviewing her and playing her videos non-stop, the Grammys and Brits couldn’t get enough of her, and her records were going platinum with ease. By the time of Homogenic, what I consider to be her very best work, she was writing lyrics about being “bored”. Sure, that was in the context of a narrative related to the subject matter of that specific project, but it was a sentiment she would later repeat in a 2004 French interview, saying “I get bored easily, you know”. By that time, she had the great Vespertine under her belt as well, which has its place in her discography but the trip-hop stylings, themes and vocals all sort of made it feel like a sequel to Homogenic rather than a sonic reinvention.
I’ll get my biases out of the way immediately, I am partial to Björk’s first four records and her late career work with Arca. The period from Medúlla to Biophilia is one that certainly intrigues me and that I will explore deeper with more reviews. However, straying away from some of the more palatable sounds she built her career on led to some failed experiments. Medúlla was not one of them. It is her strangest and most unique effort aside from Utopia, the concept is much more daring than anything she had done before. Inspired by primitive ideas and paganism, Björk sought to find a sound more in touch with youth and the natural world. While Post and Homogenic were maximalist efforts by way of elaborate string sections, techno breakdowns and volcanic drum beats, her fifth album takes a different approach. The only listed instruments are bass synth, piano, gong and “programming” (by Matmos). Other than that, this is a fully acapella effort with Björk on lead vocals and a vast array of collaborators – including two separate choirs – as well as Mike Patton, Robert Wyatt, Inuit throat singer Tagaq and others. While I stay firm in the belief that her earlier work was her very best, Medúlla is still an excellent addition to her catalog.
Ah, where to begin with this uncompromising record. “Pleasure Is All Mine” sets the tone for the project, with Björk singing about the role women play in society, comparing herself to a host of a party. Underneath her distinctive Icelandic-accented English are these heavenly beds of choral coos and subte beatboxing percussion. “The pleasure is all mine / Women like us / We strengthen most” she sings before the entire song is swallowed up by background noise and cough-like vocalizations. There is constantly a balance between healing and sickness on her records, and this continues that tradition in a really creative way. Immediately following this we are hit with “Show Me Forgiveness”, which consists only of Björk’s vocals. This will be an odd comparison, but it reminds me of Kanye West’s “I Miss The Old Kanye”, in that it is a jarring shift into an empty space. At first, it made me quite unsettled by just how barebones it was. That was until I realized how unique this style is to her career, and then it made me wonder why such an idiosyncratic vocal talent had never done it before. The album is full of head scratching moments that quickly turn into chin strokers.
The opening bass beatboxes of “Where Is The Line” reminded me of one of those hilarious YouTube beatbox battles until the production aspects begin to chop and restructure them. From there, it shifts into classic Björk alien invasion mode. With Halo-esque angel choruses clashing well against these beatboxes, as well as additional mouth sounds that mirror lasers. Like on “Army of Me” or “Sue Me”, she turns her relationship and familial issues into sci-fi, and it fits so well into this new universe she creates for herself and her team. I’d say another stark difference from her earlier work is the lack of singles. If you remember back on Post, there were something like six singles, giving away the entire record before it even arrived. Here, the only singles were the strong closer “Triumph of a Heart” and the poppy “Who Is It”. The latter is the only one where I could see any tangible line back to her former work, but I’d even consider that to be a stretch. It starts off with some back-and-forth stereo track play, before breaking into a robust beatbox session. The hi-hat simulation here is particularly on point, complimenting Björk’s straightforward lyricism quite well. After this, it devolves into sounds that are very foreign to her catalog up until the modern day.
So far, we’ve covered her themes of womanly nurturing, ungrateful partners, and reverting to youthful play. This is a really complex and interesting record in just how much ground it truly covers, with one of my personal favorite explorations being “Desired Constellation”. Here, Björk deals with her fate. Over some synthesized instrumentation, without her angels behind her, she must face the universe in solitude. “It's tricky when you feel someone/Has done some sin on your behalf/It's slippery when your sense of justice/Murmurs underneath and is asking you”. She is trying to “make it right” and “roll the dice” an infinite amount of times until a “desired constellation” appears. It’s like she is trying to plug cheat codes into the ways of the universe itself. It’s Lynchian in that “no turning back” sort of way; when one challenges what is meant to be, one must also face the consequences that come with the new chaos they created with their selfish act. Many tracks on this record are very empowering, and this stands out to me as a moment of vulnerability and desperation. “Oceania” finds her straying from techno fully into nature, using cascading human voices and rolling beatboxes to paint herself as the ocean. Her vocal range is vast as she shows off one of the best performances of her whole career. She even gets sensual as well, calling back to Vespertine with lyrics like “You sweat is salty / I am why” and “You have done good for yourselves / Since you left my wet embrace”.
You might be saying to yourself, “well what’s so experimental about this album, just that it’s non-instrumental”? My answer to that is, absolutely not. How about when she goes from Icelandic to gibberish without anyone noticing from “Vokuro” to “Oll Birtan”? Or maybe the sexual moan-off on “Ancestors”? At points, Medúlla strays far away even from the brackets that it sets up early on. Truthfully, these are some of the coolest moments for me, real AntiArt. “Submarine” is the best diversion in my opinion, starting off with these cinematic boat horns that double as viking war calls. “Do it NOWWWWWW” the male lead vocals command, “shake us out of the heavy deep, sleep!” before moving onto some throat singing.This is a wildly unhinged record that lives up to the hype in the avant-garde department. Also, I will say, even though this is not my favorite record in the Björk discography, it certainly changed my opinion on acapella music. If only she had approved Ryan Murphy’s vision for a Glee collaboration, maybe I could’ve been put onto this sooner.
POWER RANKING (of what I’ve reviewed thus far)
Homogenic (1997) > Post (1995) > Vespertine (2001) > Utopia (2017) > Medúlla (2004)