Review: Medúlla (Polydor 9867591) – Björk
Stereo – Sony ES, Art Audio, Reference 3A, Cardas
Multichannel – Denon, Marantz, Bryston, Paradigm Reference (HT system)
Normally I review music/performance and sonics in separate sections, but this doesn't really seem possible with Björk's new album, a strange project even by Björkian standards, but one that I've liked better every time I've listened to it. Consisting entirely of voices and a few sparse electronics (and one piano), Medúlla succeeds with slick production, excellent collaboration with a variety of international artists, real originality, and the force of Björk's famously enigmatic personality.
The Medúlla experience begins when one consults the fold-out booklet/poster, most of which is written in near-inscrutable, vaguely runic typeface – glossy black on slightly-less-glossy black. One then enters a world of the human voice, and I will say right out that the multichannel program is excellent, and I would speculate that Medúlla was probably conceived and created for surround sound, although the stereo program is no disappointment. Björk sings passionately as ever. The subtle engineering presents her flexible voice with a variety of tones and textures, even aside from a few obvious special vocal effects. For instance, her voice has a (mildly irritating) slightly “cracked” quality in the short solo “Show Me Forgiveness” and its expanded continuation “ Vökuró ,” a startling naturalness in “ Öll Birtan,” and a great sheen/reverb-type effect in the infectious “Who Is It.” Sometimes she seems “right there,” and then it's like a curtain you didn't even perceive is dropped and she becomes even more immediate.
The musical content ranges from pop to ballad to vaguely Orthodox medieval to dance, but none of it is really classifiable like this. In the end, it's all Björk. A few superficially radio-ready songs such as “Who Is It,” “Oceania,” and “Mouth's Cradle” use grooves built up out of elements of voice that can only be discerned and appreciated with fairly careful listening. And the overarching “point” of the album seems to be a celebration of the expressive diversity of the human voice, for example in the exaggerated breathing in a song like “Submarine,” the impossibly precise percussion in the beat-driven songs, and the unnerving moans and growls contrasting with the calm of the lone piano in “Ancestors.” Most of these sounds have a disembodied quality to them, floating, shifting, blending, coalescing, and multiplying in a black but benevolent void. The album pivots on the searching, hypnotic “Desired Constellation” and ends with the playful and partially successful “Triumph of a Heart,” which is really the first time that I actually said to myself: “This sounds like people making weird noises.”
As much of a sonic adventure as this album is, especially in multichannel, the overall impression is still one of musical adventure, and of the diverse, even elemental, power of voice. One is reminded of the musical/mimetic traditions of rural Tuva. While succeeding as (broadly speaking) pop music, and only rarely succumbing pretentiousness, Medúlla underscores how fundamentally human it is to make music. Throughout, Björk sustains her characteristic directness and authenticity, perhaps especially in her native Icelandic. A solid recommendation for this genuinely original, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally satisfying project.
© Lyle Crawford