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Bjork's 'Volta' captures her style

The avant-garde artist from Iceland mixes voices, instruments and ideas in a new release.

By ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN
Published May 16, 2007


First off, her name rhymes with jerk, not pork. And yes, it is tempting to say it in a goofy high-pitched voice: "Bjork!" But after that, it's best to take the Icelandic chanteuse seriously - even if she appears on the cover of her new album Volta dressed up as a multicolored squash with gigantic blue feet.

For more than 10 years, Bjork has been cannily mixing a palette of sounds: dance-floor beats, diva vocals, classical instruments, performance art and old-fashioned pop.

Volta's opening track, Earth Intruders, begins with the sound of stamping, like soldiers on the march. Then there's a gurgle - is that water in a hooka? - and a melody line from a synthesizer merrily ping-ping-pings along. Bjork's voice soars above it all: "Turmoil! Carnage!" Weird as it sounds, the song is undeniably catchy, invoking Bjork's roots in '80s New Wave music. She was the lead singer for the Sugarcubes.

Other tracks remind us of Bjork's restless desire for collaboration and unusual instruments. The gender-bending Antony Hegarty (think Boy George) sings on The Dull Flame of Desire, a slow-paced, horn-laden poem set to music. That horn section appears on several tracks, while Chinese and African stringed instruments punctuate others. Hip-hop impresario Timbaland contributes beats to songs like Declare Independence, a pulsating manifesto in which Bjork, Yoko Ono-like, shrieks, "Raise your flag! Higher! Higher!"

Volta feels like a logical next step for Bjork. Her first solo album, 1993's Debut, mixed joyous dance music (Big Time Sensuality) and edgy syncopation (Human Behavior). Later albums like Homogenic used soaring symphonic arrangements. Her last major release, 2004's Medulla, was a vocals-only concept album that explored the flexibility of the human voice, using almost no instrumentation. Hip-hop beat-boxer Rahzel and the Japanese noisemaker Dokaka became a human percussion section.

At her best, Bjork's songs are fascinating and beautiful. At their worst, they're grating. Sometimes they seem to teeter between the two. Volta seems to stay on the right line of that tension, and it should: Bjork is a mature artist at the top of her game. The young woman who sang "This wasn't supposed to happen, " with the Sugarcubes, is now 41. Bjork has a young daughter with American artist Matthew Barney, known for his performance art films and sculpture called the Cremaster Cycle. (The two collaborated in 2005 on his film, Drawing Restraint 9.) She also has a grown son from an earlier relationship.

A maturity has come to Bjork's work; it's expressed lyrically on Volta with concerns about the environment, society, and the future of her children. On I See Who You Are, she contemplates the inevitability of death for herself and her daughter, so "let's celebrate now all this flesh on our bones/ let me push you up against me tightly."

The album's loveliest track is My Juvenile, in which she regrets the mistakes she made raising her son: "Perhaps I set you too free, too fast, too young. But the intentions were pure."

Bjork's voice remains her most notable sound: It howls, it growls, it whispers, it trills. It can sound celestial or feral. Bjork recently told the New York Times that her sensibility is driven by embracing multiple emotions and styles: "I was quite conscious that I wanted permission to be able to be sad and funny, and human and crazy and silly, and childish and wise, " she said, "because I think everybody is like that." Her voice captures it all.

Angie Drobnic Holan can be reached at aholan@sptimes.com.

 

Review

Volta, Bjork, Grade: A