Bjork’s name has effectively become an adjective to describe her work, and it is really the only satisfying way to describe her new album Medulla. For example, the song “Where is the Line?” is simply Bjork. The track originally sounds ludicrous — as though Bjork is singing over the boomingly dramatic intro music of Super Metroid — until you realize that those are not video game blips but an amazing display of vocal talent. This particular display is courtesy of Rahzel, famed beatboxer of The Roots, whom, along with several other amazing vocal talents, Bjork has recruited for the recording of this album. And Bjork’s seeming power to make a whimsical conceptual musical desire into a work of art without appearing, or sounding, foolish, can rarely be matched. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips might be able to give her a run for her money on that claim, but there aren’t many others. Bjork recently claimed that “instruments are so over.” Acting on this thought, she decided to make an almost entirely vocal record (a piano in one song, a synth arrangement in another and a gong in a third are the only non-vocal audio on the entire 14-track recording). Somehow, inexplicably, it works.
Further, beyond simply being effective and successful, the overwhelming vocality of the record is a sort of gimmick for her. For example, like any Bjork recordings, the tracks on this album range wildly in terms of immediate accessibility. To Bjork’s advantage in this case is the vocal “gimmick,” which necessitates second and third listens. Double-take curiosity drives repeated listens, which defeats the initial bewilderment and makes the initial accessibility of the album a non-issue.
Another advantage of the vocal dominance of the record is the raw sound that emerges from it. The album has a naked feel, as though it were somehow more Bjork than her others, thanks to the recordings’ heavily mixed but underproduced quality. The minimal number of takes used during recording, as well as the bare instrumentation, give the multi-layered vocal tracks this stripped quality.
A combination of other factors also contributes to the visceral sound. Bjork had already entrenched herself firmly within pagan themes and imagery; on “Medulla” she weaves them into her lyrics and her music even more intensely than before. In particular, the opening track, “Pleasure is All Mine,” has a mournful eroticism almost reminiscent of the Counting Crows’ “Colorblind,” but with a more pagan sensuality. The lyrical choices similarly enhance this odd sound.
Several of the tracks’ lyrics are written in Icelandic, and “Sonnets/Unrealities XI” is Bjork’s musical imagining of the e. e. cummings sonnet “it may not always be so, and i say.” Most of these songs in particular consist musically of Bjork’s soaring and evocative voice, with only a bare bones choir arrangement behind her, which makes the lyrical choices, and the finished products, sound that much more personally chosen and arranged. So the idea of the adjectival Bjork still holds, albeit in a different context; this record seems so personal to her that for that reason alone, no one but Bjork could have made it.
Some of the other tracks, however, do have a similar beat and sound to prior Bjork work (at least, in the same genre, which is about as much as can be said about Bjork’s music). The ambient “Oceania,” probably the most accessible song on the album, (and also the song she performed at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies) evokes a much softer and slower, and a less sweeping, “Isobel,” while “Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right),” suggests the Aphex Twin-style techno of which Bjork has sometimes been fond (despite beats created by Rahzel’s and Dokaka’s vocal genius, not a drum machine). However, even without these similarities, Bjork fans (and even some non-Bjork fans) will have plenty to like about “Medulla.”