In Brief: A maddening and largely unlistenable album, despite several highlights. Unless you find every sound that Björk makes to be infinitely fascinating, avoid Medúlla at all costs.
I used to be really mean to Björk. I think a lot of people are when they haven’t really taken the time to familiarize themselves with her music. When all a person knows of her is her acquired-taste vocals, her legendary temper, and the “swan dress” incident that she’ll probably never live down, she becomes a bit of an easy target. So she was kind of my go-to joke whenever I wanted to make a wisecrack about unorthodox singing voices or bad fashion decisions. Yet, despite all the obvious smart remarks one could make about Björk, she has a rabid fanbase who will defend nearly everything she’s done as a work of genius. Not really understanding this, but wanting to keep an open mind, I decided at one point that I should dive in and give one of her albums a fair listen. Unfortunately, when I made this decision to be charitable, the year was 2005, and Björk’s newest album at the time was Medúlla.
You know how almost any famous musician who really takes their art seriously will have at least one of those albums that comes right the heck out of nowhere, is off-the-wall even compared to their past work, and is destined to be misunderstood even by a large chunk of an otherwise devoted fanbase (to say nothing of the general public)? Radiohead had Amnesiac, Pearl Jam had Vitalogy, U2 had Zooropa, and so forth. These aren’t bad albums – I’ve struggled through each of them and even found several things to love about them. But they’re generally not the kind of album I’d recommend to first-time listeners. Medúlla is that kind of album for Björk, and it was precisely the wrong place in her discography for me to start. If I’d had any sense, I’d have started with the easygoing Debut, the critically-acclaimed and kick-@$$ Homogenic, or the beautifully relaxedVespertine (though, to be fair, even that one might have been difficult for me to fully get into at the time). Those records all demonstrate a good balance between Björk’s curiosity-stoking experimental side and her enchanting pop sensibilities. None of them are orthodox by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s always an interesting melody or an ingeniously constructed beat or a gorgeous instrumental backdrop to pull you in and get you to stick around for the weirder stuff. Medúlla certainly has its moments in all three of those categories, but it just throws you into a bizarre jumble of experimental ideas with very little cohesion from song to song and absolutely no concern for accessibility. On an intellectual level, it’s admirable in the same sense that all of Björk’s 21st century output is – she will not rest until she reinvents the very means by which music is made. Someone could tell me about the process by which she created any one of these songs, and I’d probably think, “Gee, I’d like to hear how that one came out.” But on more of a gut level, most of these songs are extremely difficult for me to get into. It’s a classic case of an artist’s reach exceeding her grasp.
The main gimmick behind Medúlla (which, to be fair, is a pretty neat idea) is that Björk wanted to make an album entirely constructed out of the human voice. If your mind just conjured up images of glee clubs, barbershop quartets, and Gregorian chants, then you simply don’t know the half of it. Medúlla goes out of its way to find some of the most unconventional ways that the human voice can be used to make music, from traditional methods known by the ancients, to more modern, hip, percussive sounds approximating the delightful clash between harsh rhythms and lovely melodies that you might hear on an album like Homogenic, to electronic manipulations of voices to the point where they might not even be recognized as such. A documentary on this album’s creation would no doubt be a fascinating thing to watch. But since Björk has this annoying habit of “feeling” her way through a melody seemingly at random whenever a song doesn’t have a well-defined beat to anchor it down (and even sometimes when it does), large portions of this album end up coming across as experiments that were conceived just for the sheer science of it, with no regard for how they would flow into or out of the tracks surrounding them, or how the album as a whole would hang together when all is said and done. Seriously, you could probably put this thing on shuffle and come up with a better track order than how these fourteen “songs” (and I use that word quite loosely) actually sound when played in sequence. I have nothing against a bit of abstract exploration, but there’s such a concentration of it here that the salvageable material can easily get lost in the spectacular train wreck surrounding it.
It was only after writing off Medúlla, and Björk in general, as just too strange for me to appreciate, and then later coming around to give her another chance with Volta, that I finally decided to come back after several years and brave this album again. At long last, I found that roughly half of its tracks were at least marginally enjoyable for me to listen to – some of them immediately stick out as examples of her best work, while other slowly sink in with a little bit of patient open-mindedness. The rest of the album just won’t seem to grow on me no matter how much I try to force it. And it’s for that reason that Medúlla spends most of its time in a dark corner of my music collection, only occasionally getting brought out for me to puzzle over it briefly before I decide to banish it again. Unless you are already a stalwart Björk fan (in which case you really don’t need my advice on this or any of her albums to begin with), Medúlla is most definitely not for you.
1. Pleasure Is All Mine
The opening song is one of those things that sounds simple at first, but reveals its complexity upon closer listening. Most of the album is like that, actually, though realizing what ingredients went into a song doesn’t generally make the end product as worthwhile as it does here. At first it just seems like a reserved choral song that unfolds at a glacial pace. It finds Björk in a generous mood, finding strength in the very act of giving. Though she often has the habit of meandering when her songs aren’t driven by strong percussion, there’s a structure and method to it here, and picking apart the elements of that is what makes the song a curious thing, after you’ve been through the album a few times and you realize that the various vocal styles subtly creating rhythm and harmony in the background are things that all come to the forefront later on – beatboxing, ethereal choirs, even Inuit throat singing. (That thing that sounds like a contented sigh at first, turning into rough, rhythmic breathing? Yeah, that’s the throat singing. It works better here than elsewhere.) This probably could have been more of a show-stopping piece of music if Björk wanted it to be, but its gentle admonition – “When in doubt, give” works well enough in this gentle setting.
2. Show Me Forgiveness
Björk goes completely solo for a little snippet of a song that honestly sounds like she made it up entirely on the spot. It’s six or seven lines about her wanting to forgive herself for not meeting her own expectations, or something, set to an unstructured melody that does nothing to be memorable, and that lasts just long enough to be an early speed bump in an album that’s unfortunately full of them.
3. Where Is the Line
WHOA. Björk goes off the deep end into totally creepy territory here, and even despite knowing how weird her past work could get, there’s still no preparing for this one. With its deep, guttural bass vocals, harsh beatboxing, rhythmic throat singing, and over-the-top Gothic choir melodies, it almost sounds like what would happen if you tried to approximate heavy metal with only vocals. (I mean the down-tuned, gloomy kind with bludgeoning guitar riffs, not the spandex-and-big-hair kind.) I’m not exactly sure how I was savvy enough to even like this at first, given my tastes and my general unfamiliarity with Björk at the time, but it was the first of her songs to really get my attention. I thought it was flat-out awesome, and I still do. The melodramatic overdrive works because Björk feels used and abused by someone who is continually overstepping their boundaries and taking more from her than she’s willing to give, yet she doesn’t know how to say no to the person. Vespertine‘s “An Echo, a Stain” certainly hinted at a similar theme with its own measure of calculated darkness, and she’s demonstrated aggression and anger in several tracks on Homogenic, but for me, this is Björk at her most haunting. I love how, just for unsettling dissonance, she throws some cheery whistling right into the middle of the song. It’s like if you were at the scene of a grizzly execution in the Middle Ages, and suddenly the frickin’ Smurfs came marching through.
Ready for a little mood whiplash? (If not, you really shouldn’t be listening to this album at all.) Björk shifts back into serene mode for one of the two songs on the album that she didn’t write – this one’s a traditional Icelandic folk song, whose title translates to “Vigil”. Björk sings in her native language, and the slow, evenly-measured melody seems to hit all the right emotional notes, as if paying homage to something ancient and sacred. The solemn choir behind her is a good enough link back to “Where Is the Line” to make it seem not completely off the wall to have the two songs together. But they’re two of the best on an incredibly uneven album, so I really can’t complain. Since I was new to Björk when I first heard this and her enunciation of certain English words grated on me at the time, I found this song to be a good gateway into her other work, since I can’t nitpick the pronunciation or emphasis on different syllables in a language I don’t even know.
5. Öll Birtan
Speaking of languages I don’t know… does anyone speak Gibberish? No? Alright, then, we’re all in the same boat concerning this bizarre little interlude which finds Björk looping a few syllables of her own voice and then wailing over the top of it about nothing in particular. Remember her cutesy little vocal tics at the beginning of “Unravel”? Now imagine that those repeated ad nauseum, with more and more layers of sound stacked on top of it, never unfolding into anything remotely resembling beauty. This is an experiment for experiment’s sake that honestly should have been left on the cutting room floor. It seems irritatingly long just listening to a minute of it – and then she has the nerve to stop and start building it all up again. Ugh, next!
6. Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)
Given this track’s emphasis on beatboxing and a comparatively more conventional song structure, this is one of the few tracks on Medúlla that even remotely stood a chance at being released as a single. (Even then, they had to remix it with bells. Doesn’t that go against the entire spirit of the album?) Its melody takes some getting used to, and it seems to stop and start as if considering its next move carefully, making the song more reflective than aggressive. I point that out because this is actually a song that Björk originally wrote for Vespertine before deciding it was too aggressive to fit the album’s flow. And I agree, it wouldn’t have worked… so hey, just throw it on an album where there’s no flow to ruin! The lyrics describe an intimacy that will seem familiar to fans like me who fell in love with Vespertine – the giving spirit of a lover gives Björk back her strength, her purpose, her “crown”, as she puts it. The melody here meanders a bit and takes some getting used to, but ultimately it stands out as one of the album’s sturdier tracks (and one that it was quite amusing to hear the ever-eclectic Bon Iver attempt to cover in a recent live show).
The low hum of male vocals at the beginning of this song sounds like it’s going to take us into some weird, colorful, underwater world. Instead, they end up blurting out a half-baked fragment of a song that Björk apparently wrote to fend off procrastination. Seriously, most of it is just the voices chanting things like “Do it now!”, getting increasingly more off-key and annoying with each repetition. It feels like it should be the backdrop to some piece of performance art, but standing on its own, it doesn’t make for a terribly fascinating listen. Despite being only two minutes long, it still manages to wear out its welcome in record time.
8. Desired Constellation
I go back and forth on how much I enjoy this hazy, drawn-out song. It’s got a special ambiance to it that most of the bare-bones material on Medúlla doesn’t seem to have, which is largely due to what I assumed was the sound of a synthesizer, slowed down to ludicrous levels and strung out beneath the entire song, giving it at least a loose melodic progression to follow. Turns out that synthesized sound is actually Björk’s voice, sampled from Vespertine‘s “Hidden Place” and manipulated to the point of unrecognizability. It’s a fun thing to geek over as I wonder exactly how she managed to disguise it, but unlike many of the other fascinating factoids about this album, the end result is still something that’s interesting to listen to without that knowledge. As for Björk singing in real-time, this song’s got one of her lovelier and more passionate vocals, as she repeatedly pines, “How am I going to make it right?”, pitting her wishes against the seeming randomness of the universe. I listen to this one and I feel that same blanket of warmth that enveloped me as I listened to Vespertine, while her more recent composition “Cosmogony” from Biophilia also comes to mind. The only problem is that it sticks out as one of the longer songs on the album, to the point where I really feel like it’s said all that it needs to say when it still has two minutes or so of repetition to go. A little more vocal layering or some other creative vamping probably would have helped there, but as it is, the song’s not bad.
If you saw Björk perform this song at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympics, then you’ll probably never be able to picture anything other than her massive unfolding dress engulfing the entire stadium as you listen to it. For me, never actually having seen that performance, other images come to mind. As Björk sings from the motherly point of view of the sea, from which all life sprang, there’s this gaggle of female vocals that keeps interjecting all manner of oohs and aahs, and for some reason the whole thing sounds very 1950s in its character (well, if you ignore the slow beatboxing, at least). So I picture a black-and-white telecast of some synchronized swimmers in one-piece bathing suits and shower caps, bright smiles plastered on their faces as they dive systematically into a pool. Weird, huh? Fortunately this song merges Björk’s knack for composing beautiful melodies extremely well with her more experimental tendencies. It’s one of the few songs that seems to have survived beyond the Medúlla years (most of which Björk has rarely or never performed live), leading to an equally lovely horn-driven arrangement on the Volta tour.
10. Sonnets/Unrealities XI
Adapting a poem by e. e. cummings into a song seems to have worked well enough for Björk on Vespertine, so why not try it again here? Well, for starters, maybe because Vespertine at least had a semi-interesting instrumental backdrop, somewhat resembling a music box, that gave the otherwise uneven “Sun in My Mouth” a bit of direction. Here, the melody is as out-of-nowhere as “Show Me Forgiveness”, and at least there’s a choir behind this one, but they’re as full of anti-climactic stops and starts as Björk is. So, there really isn’t that much to it. (Also, the original poem has a different title, so the roman numeral “XI” in the title remains unexplained. I sure hope to God she doesn’t have another ten of these lying around in the vault.)
This is where Medúlla strikes absolute rock bottom for me. Have you ever heard one of those pieces of music that you know took a lot of talent to produce, yet no matter how many angles you look at it from and how hard you try to appreciate it, you just can’t manage to get anything remotely listenable out of it? Yeah, this is one of those. It’s a track entirely devoted to primal vocal sounds – or at least it would be if Björk’s piano playing didn’t stick out so incongruously. She plays notes about as aimlessly as she wails wordless vocals, but that isn’t even the real treat. No my friends, the real treat here is that we’re going to endure several minutes of Inuit throat singing by Tanya Tagaq, who has admirably used her talents to provide a bit of rhythm and ferocity to more structured songs on the album, but who is only featured here for the sake of showing off. The woman is talented. I certainly couldn’t breathe in and out with such precision that the very saliva in my throat, suspended in an oscillating stream of air, emits a constantly changing rhythm resembling a cat struggling to cough up a hairball. I don’t mean to poke fun at a traditional method of making music that goes much farther back than many of the Western forms of music that we’re familiar with. I really don’t. But it’s presented here completely out of context, with anything on the album or even within the song, to the point where it’s a total chore to listen to, and probably a genuine nightmare if you don’t understand the origin of those harsh vocal sounds and you’re worried that they somehow managed to leave a mic on while someone was painfully choking on a chicken bone in the studio.
12. Mouth’s Cradle
And now we’re going to lead a song off with… synthesized keyboards? No, I really mean it this time. What the hell, Björk? You set up this theme for an album and you can’t even manage to follow it for fourteen songs? I’d have loved the sound of this on just about any other Björk album, where it would have fit in seamlessly. Here, it sticks out like a sore ring finger (and I only say that because “Ancestors” already took the role of the sore, throbbing, gangrenous thumb). There are still plenty of mouth sounds present, this time chopped into snippets and fed back to us in disorienting little bursts. it adds a fair amount of dissonance to what would otherwise be a straightforward enough song about… using someone’s teeth as a ladder. I guess she’s finding shelter in the voice of a loved one. OK, it’s strange, but it works with the theme of the album, and despite the initial off-putting weirdness, I’ve started growing to like this one. At least until the end, where she sabotages her own abstract poetry by suddenly being very blunt, not at all poetic, and now that it’s 2012, painfully dated: “I need a shelter to build an altar away/From all Osamas and Bushes.” You know, I wasn’t a fan of either man myself, but the name-dropping is just ten kinds of awkward.
Well, I bet you all just loved the abstract lunacy that was “Öll Birtan” enough to want a sequel, right? Too bad. Björk gives you one anyway. I really can’t see a heck of a lot of difference between the two, so I can only assume that they’re meant to be some sort of bookends, maybe with the titles mirroring each other somehow if you translate them… OK, the first one was “All the Brightness”, and this one is… “Wednesday”. Yep. That’s right folks. What you and I would consider to be a formless, unenthusiastic, and bafflingly crazy piece of music, is apparently just a typical day on the job for Björk.
14. Triumph of a Heart
Now look, I wouldn’t blame you if you mentally checked out half an album ago, assuming there was nothing next to redeeming left on Medúlla to be heard. It would certainly be my tendency as well if the album has ended on something as downbeat and abstract as, say, Post‘s closing track “Headphones” (which, to be honest, now seems like it must have been the precursor for many of this album’s experiments). But when you get to the point where you just can’t stand it any more, at least skip to the end and experience the goodness of Medúlla‘s liveliest and catchiest song, which honestly is not the kind of thing that deserves to be buried this far back in even a good album. With its hyperactive beatboxing that almost sounds like it’s mimicking a DJ scratching records, “Triumph” completely lives up to its name, bringing in vocal approximations of hip-hop rhythms, a trumpet, and if I’m hearing things right, a cat. (Which makes so much more sense when you watch the music video… insofar as a Björk video can actually make sense, of course). Björk’s lyrics return to her enduring fascination with the human body, describing the path of blood through the circulatory system as it brings oxygen to all of the vital organs and extremities from that generous hub known as a heart. The lyrics are a perfect call-back to “Pleasure Is All Mine”, since the album begins and ends on this theme of giving, but assuming we had any semblance of a balanced track list to work with, I’d assume it would have made more sense to start with “Triumph” and end with “Pleasure”. This track no doubt plays better in live setlists, and will someday on a second volume of Björk’s greatest hits as it pulls together the standouts from her wildly uneven post-millennial work. Until then, I only have myself to blame for not documenting my love for it on a personal mix CD from the era when I first discovered and fell in love with it. All the strangeness of its origins aside, it is one of Björk’s most amazing songs.
Oh, and by the way, the lyrics that I quoted on songs that actually have them? Don’t bother looking in the booklet for them if you want to clear up disputes on words that Björk enunciates strangely (or in cases where you’re not sure if there are words at all), because the entire lyric booklet is black in on blacker ink, completely unreadable unless you hold it up to the light at a certain angle. Just one of the myriad examples of things that Björk thought would clever, which actually just turned out to be incredibly irritating.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Pleasure Is All Mine $.75
Show Me Forgiveness -$.25
Where Is the Line $1.75
Öll Birtan -$.50
Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right) $1
Desired Constellation $.75
Sonnets/Unrealities XI -$.25
Mouth’s Cradle $.50
Triumph of a Heart $2
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Originally published on Epinions.com.