I've universally heard it said as "b-york" but I knew a woman that worked as a talent contact at MTV said she answered the phone to an elfin chirp on the other line saying "Hello, This is b-yirk." Perhaps we shall call her Dances with Umlauts. Does pronunciation of your name even matter once it's been written in constellations like Bjork's has? She is one of the most difficult artists for me to rectify in my mind. On one hand, she is a genre-busting truly international star of undeniable appeal, a gold star celebrity who seems determined, hard-working and charming. On the other hand, when I hunker down and actually listen to a Bj??rk record, I feel like I'm experiencing the post-Klaus Nomi Barbara Streisand - corny movies written about her starring her (ok, they aren't like Yentl corny, but the analogy stands) and her propensity to constantly soar vocally, like the cross beteween Bono and a condor. I mean, when I first heard "Birthday" in 1988, I though now that is a new voice, but twenty years down the yellow brick road and I hear the same thing. And sure, there is an unfair higher standard for female singers - Bruce Springsteen's' voice has sounded the same for twice as long and no on mentions that, but still, I feel like we are smokkkkkinnnng ceeee-gars all over again every time.
Volta was touted to be her big return to the club music that brought her, and much was said about collaborating with Timbaland. On the first point, hasn't hip-hop really surpassed club music, like it rightfully has everything else? On the second - look, that last Justin Timberlake album ain't that good, y'all. Timba's no Dr. Dre in my book. But despite where to what was supposed to go, and who pushed which button, Volta is what all Bj??rk's albums are: weird little albums that are just left of pop and just right of full freak-transcendence. Bj??rk is Starbucks avant-garde, for better or worse.
This record has some sublime moments, mostly to be found in the more atmospheric slow numbers. "Dull Flame of Desire" is a horn filled elegant diva duet with Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) which makes for a great twist on the Celine Dion gloss-and glimmer epic, and Antony frankly upstages her a bit - the fucker can sing. Also see the odd "Wanderlust" which mixes its beat with a morning horn section and her intonations. I don't really like the song in pieces, the verse is too disjointed, and the chorus to cheesy, but I find it beguiling. "I See Who You Are" is really more on my side of Bj??rk, her earthy warble present over twinkling strings and music box sounds like on Vespertine and Drawing Restraint 9. And the Casablanca-grade cinema noir of "Vertebrae by Vertebrae" totally works.
The chasm I straddle between loving it and hating only widens with the disco numbers. "Earth Intruders" had me sold when she did her best Pat Benatar impression on SNL a while back. The lyrics on it are kinda knuckleheaded, but the stompy new wave glory of it is infectious to anyone who ever loved Depeche Mode or Talk Talk, whether publicly or in private. "Innocence" is less successful, in that Timbaland's solid platinum beats sound like a mere satellite orbiting Planet Rock electro-retro-futurism. Maybe this swing between velveteen and concrete is what she is about, and the arc is what the hardcore Bj??rk fans look for. I don't know. I don't really get her, but something in there makes me want to, and that is what makes her a compelling artist to me. The electro my-body-my-art-my-choice stomp "Declare Independence" is well, kinda awful, sounding dashed off. But then Le Tigre hits me that same way, and lots of people like them too. "My Juvenile" saves the record in the end. It's a slightly oblique piano nocturne where a choir of Antonys comes in like the camp barbershop quartet of the damned. It's a delicate, touching way to close out this record, one that stays with me as "Earth Intruders" comes marching in on the repeat. I like her, I don't. I love this shit, I hate this shit. I don't know what to do.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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