After 2004’s admirable yet rather serious artistic statement Medúlla, an album created using voices only, Björk’s sixth studio album Volta appears with the Icelandic Earth mother making pronouncements about a return to fun.
The album’s cover, featuring our heroine decked out as what appears to be an obese neon chicken from a mind-altering children’s show of her own imagining, makes no bones – Björk is, with one effective image, telling her many loyal fans that beats and colour are back, and it’s time to party.
Yet it’s not at all as simple as that. “All I wanted to do for this album was just to have fun and do something that was full-bodied and really up,” she says. “I just wanted to get rhythmic again.” That said, she then proceeds to lay down a record that finds her doing what she does best – confounding expectations. For the record’s beats were the last part of the recording process, and before Timbaland and Mark Bell shimmied in to lend their production talents Björk had other bones to flesh out, not least her most overtly political lyrics and a slew of collaborative musical ideas.
Opening track Earth Intruders, one of the Timbaland collaborations, is as big and beatsy as anything she’s done. Tribal beats and brash synth stabs jostle with Björk’s singing-cum-giggling. But the lyrics relate to using people power to effect change and were written in response to a UNICEF trip to tsunami-hit Indonesia. Thus the song is about “a tsunami of people (who) would just come and hit the White House and scrape it off the ground and do some justice and spread these people all around the planet… We are a tribe… so let’s just make some universal tribal beat. Let’s just march,” she says.
Later on the album, perhaps by way of marching, she goes all riot gurrrl punk with Declare Independence, a wild, abandoned exercise in blowing up speakers that, again, harbours a political message behind the colossal rhythm section and Björk’s geological howls and wails. This one, which from her work to date most resembles the overdriven Pluto, is said to be a treatise to the people of Greenland and the Faroe Islands who, unlike Iceland, did not raise their own flag in 1966 and consequently continue to be ruled by “damned colonists” from Copenhagen. The lyrics – “raise your own flag, declare independence, don’t let them do that to you” – are vague enough for the song to be taken up by any rebellious cause, and the fact that it feels utterly different to the rest of the album is no bar to it being a bold and addictive move in its own right. It’s certain to be an absolute belter live.
Tracing a direct lineage back to 2002’s Vespertine album, I See Who You Are plink-plonks in that Matmos manner of womb-like contentedness, electronic pulses juxtaposed with Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen‘s exotically brittle textures and Björk’s expressive vocals to create one of the album’s few blissful moments. Elsewhere, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons pops up for duets on The Dull Flame Of Desire and closer My Juvenile. Whether you can listen to either of these songs will depend on your tolerance for these singers’ voices, both of which could be compared to Marmite for their ability to polarise opinion about them.
Toumani Diabaté‘s lavishly plucked kora, in Hope, twinkles around lyrics concerning a pregnant Palestian suicide bomber whose morality Björk questions. But to these ears the highlight is Wanderlust, a piece with a melody that sounds grafted on to its ponderous bass, wailing vocals and frenetic drums and one that for all the world shouldn’t work yet one that leaves a greater impression with each passing listen. Also likely to go down well is Innocence, the album’s second single. It’s another of the Timbaland collaborations but gets closer to the producer’s hip-hop roots than his other contributions here.
Added to the international cast of thousands is a 10-piece, all female, all Icelandic brass section who mournfully underpin Björk’s emotive howls at mankind, the firmament and the powers that be with lyrics that could only be hers. Their contribution to Vertebrae By Vertebrae is to pitch the song somewhere between Felt Mountain era Goldfrapp and Pulp‘s This Is Hardcore as remixed by Humphrey Lyttelton, and a seague into more brass parping on the sparse Pneumonia holds the mood nicely.
Volta is a hotch-potch, a heady brew of strange and unsettling ingredients hop-scotched around by an artist who, a decade and a half since launching her solo career, still sounds like no-one else, though the success of artists like Camille and Bat For Lashes suggest her approach to music is becoming ever more influential. The reason for this is simple where Volta as an album is not. Björk’s mind remains artistically open to just about anything, and on this album she sounds like she’s enjoying recharging it with another tranche of skewed new ideas.