Leave it to Bjork to come up with the year's most original album. Iceland's most famous export - Bjork's now a New Yorker, living with her child with the acclaimed visual and film artist Matthew Barney - and certainly pop's most daring ingenue, Bjork is perpetually restless, thrilling and innovative.
Bjork is a pioneer. Even when her work puzzles more than it pleases.
In the case of Medulla, her seventh solo studio album, Bjork has produced a beautiful work of art.
Medulla is stunning for its simplicity: The album's "music" is composed almost entirely of human voices, the first instruments we ever had.
Bjork explains in a news release for the album, whose title means "marrow", that she had one main rule for the album: no rules.
Bjork says that while she knew she wanted 1997's Homogenic to be wildly extroverted and grandiose and 2001's Vespertine more muted and introverted, with Medulla she wasn't sure what she wanted. So she dispensed with a blueprint.
Bjork herself banged on the the drums in the studio ("I'm awful, but drumming relieves tension") to song structures already filled with instruments. When she listened to the tapes, she wasn't pleased.
"It wasn't working. . . . I was trying to figure out why, wondering, "Where are the songs in all this mess?'
"Then I sat down at the mixing-desk and started muting the instruments, and it was like, "Oh! There they are.' "
Bjork destroyed her own songs to find them.
It's a classic, very bold, theme in art and literature: destruction can be creation.
The concept "freed" Bjork to start again and added a sense of spontaneity and merriment to her project. She decided the human voice would be the album's instrument Next, Bjork found a fun team of sound pranksters, people with interesting voices and abilities, people she wanted to make noise with in the studio.
The only other rule Bjork says she had for the new direction of Medulla "was for it not to sound like Manhattan Transfer or Bobby McFerrin."
In other words, Bjork wanted it to be, well, weird. So, Medulla runs the gamut of sounds and includes singing, samples of human voices, weird pastiches, loops, some primal grunts, some singing in English and some in Icelandic. Onomatopoeia, anyone? Those of you studying poetry in high school know this term. There's plenty of crazy buzzing and hissing and exotic sounds courtesy of human beings. And beat boxing! Oh yes, glorious beat boxing.
Bjork's kooky cast of voice musicians is diverse. The Medulla players include the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq Gillis, Japanese a cappella singer Dokaka and British art rocker Robert Wyatt, the drummer for Soft Machine in the 1970s and later a solo singer-songwriter. Wyatt duets with Bjork on the dreamy and doo-woppy Submarine.
Former Faith No More and Mr. Bungle singer Mike Patton is also on board, as is beatboxer Rahzel, formerly of the Roots. Also avant garde singer and human trombonist Gregory Purnhagen, known for his work with minimalist composer Philip Glass.
"I liked all of us to make any special noises we could make on the new album," Bjork says.
On the breathtaking Vokuro, Bjork invited a 20-member choir to help her reinvent a composition that a fellow Icelandic composer originally wrote for piano. Bjork had to map out the octaves of a piano keyboard for the singers
"It was actually pretty easy to change. . . . The soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts were already there."
What seemed most rewarding to Bjork, she explains, was the freedom she found in working on Medulla. Not having a plan opened her up artistically. Also rewarding, she tenderly acknowledges, was the enjoyment of trusting nature and her subconscious, knowing it would all come together for her.
Bjork savored the creative process because it was fun. And she didn't belabor it.
"You start some kind of universe, and because you're doing it from the right place, it completes itself," says Bjork, acknowledging, too, that letting go of a goal was important.
As was simply savoring making noise with creative friends.
"The best thing maybe is that I'm enjoying all those little nuances with people, those micro-moments that I used to think were just pauses between real life."
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HOLLYWOOD MUSIC GOSSIP: The latest rumor about that "in the works" Joy Division movie: According to Time Out New York, former Joy Division member Peter Hook has confirmed a rumor that British actor Jude Law would play the famed moody punk rock band's doomed lead singer Ian Curtis in the biopic. Curtis hanged himself in 1980 at the age of 22. The rest of the band went on to form New Order.
In other music-Hollywood news: No Doubt's Gwen Stefani will play Hollywood starlet Jean Harlow in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film The Aviator.
Alt-country singer Shelby Lynne is making her acting debut in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Lynne will play the Man In Black's mother, Carrie. ( Joaquin Phoenix plays Cash and Reese Witherspoon his wife, June Carter Cash).