Label: One Little Indian
Producer: Björk, Mark Bell
Cover art: M/M Paris (design), Inez and Vinoodh (photography)
‘DID OUR LANGUAGE commence with singing?’ Charles Darwin asked in his collected notebooks from 1836-1841. ‘Is this the origin of our pleasure in music?’ While cognitive psychologists, neurologists, anthropologists, and even animal psychologists are still asking this question, there is no doubt that singing is one of humanity’s oldest activities. On Medúlla, Björk taps into the elemental power of the voice to say something about what it means to be human.
Written during the aftermath of 9/11, during which time Björk was living in New York and found herself repulsed by the racist patriotism all around her, Medúlla was the singer’s attempt to ‘leave out civilisation, to rewind to before it all happened and work out, “Where is the human soul?”’ (The Independent, 2004). Björk did this by avoiding instrumentation and technology as much as possible to focus instead on what she described in an interview as ‘heart, blood and meat’, using little more than the world’s oldest instrument: the human voice.
To Björk, the voice is our primal connection to the natural world, and as with much of the singer’s work, there are many allusions to weather and landscape on Medúlla. The sparse and haunting “Vökuró” sighs gently like the wind, swelling and threatening to erupt into a gust at any second. “Oceania” finds her embodying the world’s seas, backed by the London Choir whose voices frequently rush upwards like they’ve been caught in the giddy whoosh of an eddying current. And “Öll Birtan” showcases the pure power of Björk’s vocal chords, sometimes singing sweetly and sometimes soaring in a powerhouse of sustained notes, flying spittle and rolled Rs – her voice a force of nature unto itself, as commanding and unpredictable as the world around us.
These compositions are wayward and often arrhythmic, Björk’s voice wandering wherever it may. Medúlla can at times be uncompromising in its unruliness and viscerality. But it’s not always Björk taking things to the extreme. Inuk throat singer Tanya ‘Tagaq’ Gillis features on several songs, and she outdoes Björk for sheer intensity. Tagaq’s guttural, wheezing approach is at its most extreme on “Ancestors”, a song that breathes in and out with multiple voices, her and Björk sharing the same sonic space but each on their own unique trip. Written shortly after the birth of Björk’s second child, it’s as if the voices of generations were singing in almost-unison, the song evoking what Björk referred to in a 2004 interview with The Independent as the ‘5,000 year-old blood that’s inside us all; an ancient spirit that’s passionate and dark, a spirit that survives.’ That feeling is maintained throughout the album, with most songs laid on a foundation of deep cultic chanting, like a chorus of the dead. But these sepulchral voices don’t drag down the more lively ones; rather they buoy them up, acting like a pungent fertiliser in which new life can flourish.
For all of Medúlla‘s challenging experimentalism, its ultimately a pop record. The album received two Grammy nominations and went number one in several countries, while Bjork performed “Oceania” for her biggest audience at the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. For every tune like “Ancestors” there’s a pop delight like “Who Is It”, which focuses layered voices into one of the album’s most accessible tunes, and a wondrous sense of variety and vitality pervades. Björk employs a diverse range of vocalists, and she delights in showing off what they can do: on “Submarine”, the eerie high notes of Robert Watt float in and around Björk’s, the two becoming almost inseparable, while on “Where Is the Line”, Björk, Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Fantômas), beat-boxer Rahzel (The Roots), and the Icelandic Choir are locked in a dramatic vocal battle, assaulting the senses with a tumult of competing sounds. While the focus is on voices – beatboxers providing the beats and the choir acting as surrogate string section – Björk and producer Mark Bell are not beyond adding more conventional instrumentation and using technology when needed. There’s piano, gong, and bass synthesizer pulses like something from an Aphex Twin record, while effects and loops push and pull at the voices, at times bending them into abnormal shapes. “Mouth’s Cradle” is the weirdest merger of voice and electronics, a deconstructed whirlwind built from scraps of disembodied vocals and mouth-made beats that is discomfiting in its raw fragmentation.
On the opposite end of the spectrum to “Mouth’s Cradle” lies “Triumph of a Heart”. It sounds like a classic Björk tune from the Post era, except the usually rich instrumentation has been replaced by a troupe of gibbering maniacs. Rahzel lays a foundation of sputtering mouth-made beats while Japanese beatboxer Dokaka provides his humorous impersonation of wah-wah guitar, and Gregory Purnhagen plays the human trombone (which is nowhere near as dirty as it sounds) – everything looped and layered together to create something unusual and indelible. “Triumph of a Heart” closes the album on a deeply experimental yet ludicrous note – there’s even a loop of cat meowing in the mix! But it works, a rare combination of experimentation and absurd humour wrapped up in a perfect art-pop package.
The multiple voices of Medúlla are unmistakably human*, expressing a wide variety of emotions. Sometimes they sing words and sometimes they don’t sing words at all. Sometimes those voices sound ugly and at other times they sound breathtakingly gorgeous. Sometimes they compete with each other, sometimes they work together, and sometimes they do their own thing side by side. Medúlla might be a difficult listen to at times, but it’s an album about communication at the primeval level, its voices representing a whole host of unique perspectives that intermingle and fit together in a wonderfully organic way, kind of like humanity does when given the chance. If human language did begin as song, I’d like to think it would sound as strange, gruesome and beautiful as it does on Medúlla.
*Well, except for that darn cat.
- “Pleasure Is All Mine” – 3:26
- “Show Me Forgiveness” – 1:23
- “Where Is the Line” – 4:41
- “Vökuró” – 3:14
- “Öll Birtan” – 1:52
- “Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)” – 3:57
- “Submarine” – 3:13
- “Desired Constellation” – 4:55
- “Oceania” – 3:24
- “Sonnets/Unrealities XI” – 1:59
- “Ancestors” – 4:08
- “Mouth’s Cradle” – 4:00
- “Miðvikudags” – 1:24
- “Triumph of a Heart” – 4:04
Listen on Spotify
Also check out…
- Kukl – The Eye (1984)
- Björk – Vespertine (2001)
- Björk – Drawing Restraint 9 (2005)
- Björk – Biophilia (2011)