Bjork – Volta

Bjork
Volta

If the cover art to Volta was any indication, Bjork would have finally become what those that balked at her swan dress thought she was, garish. Fortunately for us that isn’t the case. If anything, Volta is her most accessible album in years, even if it is sometimes at the expense of its own best interest. The collaborators this time out are Konono #1, Chris Corsano (drummer extraordinaire of Death Unit, Flower Corsano Duo, Flaherty Corsano, etc.), Brian Chippendale (drummer for Lightning Bolt), Timbaland, Mark Bell of LFO, kora player Toumani Diabaté, a ten-piece, all-girl Icelandic brass section, and Antony Hegarty of Antony & the Johnsons fame. It’s the first album she has released that doesn’t feature a bust of her on the cover. The cover does focus on her face, albeit inside what appears to be a festive Christmas ornament with feet. And while it may not necessarily be radio-friendly pop, it will most certainly be more appealing to some than the vocal abstractions of 2004’s excellent Medulla.

First single and track number one on the record is “Earth Intruders.” This one features a Timbaland beat mixed with some fluttering percussion from Corsano. After a few bars of this and a wailing, ghostly vocal in the background, we are introduced to a repeating thumb-piano motif courtesy of Konono #1. Of course Bjork is front-and-center for the whole ride, ranting about “metallic carnage” and “necessary voodoo.”

Next we get back to back standouts “Wanderlust” and “Dull Flame of Desire.” “Wanderlust,” slowly mounts a peak of brass with Bjork’s triumphant vocals careening over top. The beautiful horn section continues on into “Dull Flame of Desire,” her duet with Antony Hegarty. Over the course of eight minutes the two of them trade verses as their voices entwine. Underpinning this drama is Brian Chippendale building up rapturous momentum with hurtling tom rolls. Eventually Bjork and Antony drop out leaving Chippendale nearly 30 seconds of unrivaled caveman thunder. It isn’t quite the noise blast I was hoping for in his addition to the record, but I’ll take it.

Another Timbaland track, “Innocence,” follows. This one obviously belongs to him. It’s one of the most overtly “pop” things Bjork has done since Post. The only fault here is that Timbaland treats Bjork as if she were Missy Elliott, working in ridiculous synth squiggles and electronic grunts. It comes off as one of a handful of playful moments in an otherwise serious career, even if it borrows too heavily from Timbaland’s past work.

“Vertebrae by Vertebrae” marks a point in the album’s flow where it changes direction somewhat. It features a prominent marching snare and jagged horn blasts. By the time the track reaches its middle, the snare dissipates, giving the remainder of the track a feeling of coming untethered. This ambience segues into “Pneumonia,” with Bjork assuming a very stoic stance in regard to “still-born love.” These two tracks make up the album’s center, trading in the joyous thunder of the previous tracks for cold, translucent beauty.

The final stretch of the album is a three song arc encompassing “Hope,””Declare Independence,” and “My Juvenile.” “Hope” ponders what the “lesser of two evils” is concerning suicide bombers that masquerade as being pregnant, if they manage to hit their target or die in vain. Bjork’s vocals here are swept along by Toumani Diabaté’s kora flourishes. “Declare Independence” manages the task of being the heaviest song in her catalog. Over a distorted guitar riff she implores “declare independence, don’t let them do that to you” repeatedly. After a few minutes of this, the listener is bombarded with digital hardcore style blasts of noise while Bjork intones “make your own flag, raise your flag (higher, higher).” By the track’s end it has built up a crushing momentum with Bjork screaming “DECLARE INDEPENDENCE!!” The finale, “My Juvenile” is a quiet denouement with Diabaté and Antony both making appearances. The lyrics suggest it might be a paean to either of her children.

It’s nice to hear Bjork playing at the top of her game. That Volta embodies all the familiar aspects of her best work should come as no surprise. Her ability to transcend genre and trends is approaching a level unmatched by anyone. For the better part of two decades she’s made music that blurs the lines between the avant-garde and mainstream pop worlds while retaining a distinct singularity.