Rattled by 9/11, Icelandic singer Björk turned off her TV and stereo and began making music without the benefit of man-made instruments. The resulting album, 2004’s nearly a cappella Medúlla, could be called many things—words such as “stark,” “singular,” and “experimental” spring to mind—but few would describe it as a party record. In that sense, Björk’s follow-up, Volta, is a response to her response. Not only is it brimming with instruments and instrumentalists, it seems to be an acknowledgment that there’s life during wartime. As she recently told Pitchfork, her sixth full-length is a return to music that is “fun” and “really up.”
Of course, this is Björk we’re talking about, and there’s nothing simple or straightforward about anything she does. The former singer for Reykjavík punk act KUKL and its more popular spinoff, the Sugarcubes, is perhaps best known for her appearance at the 2001 Academy Awards, where she wore an elaborate outfit that made her look as if she were being molested by a swan. Though more elegant by comparison, her performance of Volta’s first single, “Earth Intruders,” on the April 21 episode of Saturday Night Live, was just as unfathomable. Dancing in bare feet, she led a large ensemble that included no fewer than 10 futuristically clad female vocalists who, as it turns out, doubled as a horn section.
“Earth Intruders” was co-produced by Timbaland and much has been made of his involvement with the song, as well as two other tracks on the album. But don’t expect it to chart as high as the hip-hop producer’s other recent No. 1 hits, such as Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.” For starters, the lyrics, which are based on a dream that Björk had after returning from tsunami-struck Indonesia (hence the references to “mud graves” and “carnage”), have nothing to do with sex. Neither does the music. Timbaland leaves little trace of his signature sound, a slinky, off-kilter polyrhythm that he calls the “double beat.” Instead, the song’s groove is dominated by the cult favorite Konono No. 1, a Congolese percussion outfit that contributes a clattering, martial sensibility.
It might seem like an odd way to introduce a “fun” record. That is, until you hear “Declare Independence,” Volta’s best shot at winning over the clubgoer. The distortion-heavy track, a nod to Björk’s punk past, pairs a jackhammer beat with lyrics that offer a revolutionary solution to an unspecified problem. “Declare independence,” she sings. “Don’t let them do that to you.” Björk is more specific—though less prescriptive—on “Hope,” another Timbaland-produced track. The song is inspired by a suicide bombing that left the singer scratching her noggin. “What’s the lesser of two evils?” she asks over a burbling Timbaland beat. “If a suicide bomber made to look pregnant manages to kill her target or not?”
That none of these songs add up to a coherent political statement will matter to few. Björk, after all, owes her reputation as the thinking person’s pop musician to her taste in collaborators, not to her lyrics, which tend to be sketchy and impressionistic. True to form, Volta’s lineup reads like a who’s who of hipster favorites. A few, such as the androgynous torch singer Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) and the Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, make distinctive contributions that jut out of the mix. Others, however, become merely another element of the Björk soundworld, suggesting that the woman in charge is doing more than just corralling talent. Who else but a forceful musical personality could tame Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale, the chaotic drummer who appears on the subtle ballad “Dull Flame of Desire”?
Yet despite all of its instrumentation and relative density, Volta is no great departure from Medúlla. Both albums are built around the singer and laptop composer’s unusual voice. And anyone who has ever heard KUKL or the Sugarcubes or any of the decade-and-a-half’s worth of solo recordings that came before Volta will recognize her voice right off the bat. Björk is both punk and diva rolled into one. She can belt out a glissando that, if notated, would appear much like a triumphant, albeit rocky, day on Wall Street. And yet there’s something primitive and unstudied about her singing that tends to spill over into her songwriting.
Perhaps the best example of this is her duet with Antony, “Dull Flame of Desire,” a song that features a 10-piece brass section. A large ensemble opens up all manner of compositional possibilities, but Björk limits her focus to a single melody. For much of the song, the horn players do little more than shadow her and Antony, adding heft to a refrain that is both folklike and not particularly well-suited to accompaniment. The same could be said for many of her melodies. Björk has an odd sense of meter, and, as such, her words demand odd musical patterns. Sometimes they demand no pattern at all. On “I See Who You Are,” her collaboration with the Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and the improvisational drummer Chris Corsano, Björk more or less abandons the rigidity of riff and rhythm, creating something that is closer to free jazz than to pop.
Which raises a question: Why would anyone try to spin this album as a shift toward accessibility? Of the Volta tracks that could be called dance music, none have a traditional—much less urgent—sense of swing. And only a minority of the album’s 10 tracks could be described as danceable. The rest of Volta exists in a kind of interzone where serious music of all stripes overlap. In other words, this is less a post-post-9/11 album than it is just another taste of Björk. Like so many of her records, it has its share of alternate-reality hits, odd but alluring ballads, and at least one track that is just this side of inexplicable. The last slot is filled by “Vertebrae by Vertebrae,” a crypto-classical number that is almost wholly informed by its chugging steamboat rhythm. It is neither “fun” nor “really up.”
But, then again, who expects promotional spin always to hit the mark? A better source of her intentions is “Wanderlust,” a horns-and-techno track that is among the singer’s best work. Over a chattering rhythm that recalls IDM’s glory days (think Autechre and Aphex Twin), the singer insists that “I feel at home/Whenever/The unknown surrounds me.” Björk has made a career out of lost bearings, which makes it easy to take even her most eclectic album for granted. But perhaps her spin really isn’t spin. Perhaps her quotes speak to the curious purgatory of the popular cult artist who has gold records on the wall but is still considered by many to be inaccessible. Volta shouldn’t need that kind of promotion, but it does, which says more about Björk’s audience than Björk herself. Don’t worry about her, though. She’s fine. She just released another good-to-very-good album in a career full of them.