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Out the Vox

 

Björk: Medúlla

Elektra, 2004

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: August 30, 2004

By Laurence Station

With Björk, it truly comes down to the voice. Björk’s distinctive vocal style -- a multi-octave, gasping-for-air, swoop-and-glide apparatus that instantly stamps her music with an undeniable uniqueness -- is the one instrument that cannot be replicated, dramatically setting her apart from other well-intentioned pop experimentalists. And on Medúlla, her fifth solo release, Bjork puts her voice front and center, dispensing with the formality of artificial instruments in favor of a cappella performances. Collaborating with an array of talented singers, Björk strips away pre-programmed beats in favor of human beatboxes (Japanese artist Dokaka and former Roots member Rahzel), and employs the talents of Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis, veteran UK singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt, R&B chanteuse Kelis and hyper-prolific vocalist Mike Patton, along with Icelandic and UK choirs, to assist her in fashioning an album almost entirely built from the larynx up. And it works beautifully.

Where Björk’s prior releases were assembled around a particular mood or theme (Debut’s obvious, post-Sugarcubes declaration of arrival; Post’s refinement of that record's adventurous avant-pop structures; Homogenic’s demonstrative assertiveness and Vespertine’s shades-drawn interior mediations), Medúlla peels away layers of meaning in an attempt to define the core of pure sound -- a celebration of human expression, independent of synthetic devices. This isn't that radical a concept but, as with any Björk creation, the Icelandic songstress manages to take an uncomplicated idea and project it through her distinct worldview. Again, Björk is the reason to listen, and if that meant an album of Björk doing Gregorian Chant, well, it would probably be some of the most interesting and audacious Gregorian Chant captured on tape.

Medúlla’s strongest moments resist making literal sense in favor of building a spiraling cathedral of interlocking harmonies and multitracked voice solos. The intense, hammering force of “Where Is the Line,” complete with pulsing sound effects, is a powerful example, as is “Vökuró,” which reinterprets Icelandic composer Jórunn Vidar’s piano-based rumination on sleeplessness for a 20-piece choir, with startling results. Robert Wyatt’s weighty baritone introduces the somnambulistically restless “Submarine,” nicely offset by Björk’s delicate pipes. The celebratory “Triumph Of A Heart” is a showcase for the formidable beatbox skills of Dokaka and Rahzel. “Desired Constellation” offers the most unambiguous lyrics (“With a palm full of stars / I throw them like dice on the table / Until the desired constellation appears”) and adds substantive weight to the overall cycle, as does the more mythologically-slanted, though slightly less impressive, “Oceania.”

The chirping, skitter-beat-driven “Who Is It” is the most conventional-sounding song on the album, primarily thanks to its straightforward chorus. But it lacks the left-of-center, magical quality inherent to the bulk of Björk’s lyrics. The backing noise is wonderful, though, reinforcing the album's overriding conceit: that the voice is everything. It’s not so much what’s said, but rather how words and notes sound once they leave the performer’s body. Björk’s great achievement with Medúlla is in taking a self-imposed limitation and managing to craft a full-bodied, multilayered work from such a basic toolset. Medúlla is a fantastic voyage of the human voice box.

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 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
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