Björk – Medulla (2004)

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by Mark Saleski

It was all about the voice. The radio was on one day and I heard these lines:

Today is a birthday
They’re smoking cigars
He’s got a chain of flowers
And sows a bird in her knickers

OK, I had no idea what this was about. But at that point it didn’t matter as I’d been reeled in by that voice. The song was “Birthday” by the Sugarcubes and the singer was Björk Gudmundsdottir.

Now, I do realize that her voice is an acquired taste (though my acquisition process lasted all of two or three seconds), but it’s such a unique instrument. Of all of the “weird mouth noise” female singers (including Nina Hagen, Kate Bush, the Cocteau Twins and Diamanda Galas), Björk seems to strike the right combination of humanity and weirdosity. She can go from a hushed and sexy whisper to a frightening shriek … all the in the same syllable.

At some point after my initial shock (and purchase of that fateful CD Life’s Too Good) the Sugarcubes broke up and Björk went on to begin her solo career. Her post-Sugarcubes work has been populated with many stylistic shifts, emphasizing musics as dissimilar as jazz (Gling Glo) and beat-laden electronica (Homogenic).

Now all of the instruments have been jettisoned in favor of the purest one: the human voice. On Medulla, the highly textured layers of Vespertine are transformed into a symphony of vocal cords.

For highlights, let’s look at the first four tracks.

On “Pleasure Is All Mine” we have Björk singing a very simple melody (with her own added harmony) before she begins the first verse, which is supported by Mike Patton and the Icelandic Choir. It might seem just a little bit formal if not for the various “voice-lets” that pop in from all angles: whispering, sighing, exhaling and generally providing an edge to the scene. I’ve read descriptions of the voices sometimes heard by schizophrenics. These could be the musical equivalents.

In a switch that parallels some of her career moves, “Show Me Forgiveness” downshifts to showcase only Björk’s voice. With just a smidge of reverb, it’s a very expressive instrument. “Where Is The Line” again changes direction to create a more typical Björk song, with beats created from sampled voices and colored with a Philip Glass-style chorus.

The use of the Icelandic Choir on this record reflects the role that choral music plays in Icelandic culture (a New Yorker piece on Björk once put it this way: “If one in ten inhabitants seem to play in a rock band, one in five sings in a choir”). So it’s not surprising to come across “Vigil.” Icelandic composer Jorunn Vidar’s simple and beautiful melody sets the mood for Jakobina Sigurdardottir’s poem:

Far away wakes the great world,
mad with grim enchantment,
disquieted,
fearful of night and day.
Your eyes,
fearless and serene,
smile bright at me.

While Björk sings this in her native language, the choir slowly builds a soaring counterpoint. Ever seen a snowflake form in slow motion? This is a soundtrack to that process.

I just can’t bring myself to describe any more of the songs on Medulla. Because Björk is such a musical omnivore, her music (especially on this release) is packed with countless moments of discovery. It just doesn’t seem right to spoil any more surprises.

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