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Bjork – Medulla

April 17, 2008

In 2005, Bjork Guomundsdottir (I’m not spelling that again.) continued her streak of relatively organic albums with Medulla. The preceding Vespertine was a huge success, an achingly beautiful album with more individual style than even the vastly successful Homogenic. The concept for Medulla was to make an album comprised completely of vocals and vocal samples. These voices are not bare, and are given electronic lifts and touchups throughout, but still, the vast majority of the album is spent exploring the human voice, the world’s oldest and most direct musical instrument.

Bjork said in an interview for the making of the album that she has passed the point where she can make music by herself, unaccompanied. Although she has featured other artists in the past, Medulla features more other artists than any other Bjork album. It feels like a joint effort, a sort of carnival of tricks and surprises of which Bjork is the ringleader. She herself has not changed her vocal style much for the album. Or maybe her vocal style was fluid enough in the first place to attend to the concepts that Medulla has to offer.

The guest singers are, however, the interesting and compelling parts of the album. Not that Bjork can’t deliver a nice song on her own. Desired Constellations, for example, is a brilliant little gem dotted with electronic blips that may or may not be highly distorted vocal samples, and comes from Bjork and Bjork alone. But the finest songs on here are accompanied. The high point of the album, Who Is It (Carry My Joy On The Left, Carry My Pain On The Right), features both champion beatboxer Rahzel and Mike Patton of Faith No More. As Bjork presents her slyly articulate voice in one of her most emotional performances, Rahzel cranks out intricate snaps and growls with his singular voice, and Patton produces waves of low bass tones like a singing humpback whale.

It is a shame that the rest of the album cannot live up to this brilliance, save maybe the last song, Triumph of a Heart, with Japanese vocal effect wizard Dokaka. The song is a full out dance track, although one you probably wouldn’t hear in even the most liberal dance club. There are some other good songs that take a long time to unwrap themselves and become enjoyable. However, this is a standard process for Bjork albums. Vokuro, for example, is a reserved choral piece that succeeds by keeping things simple. The more of these gems one can uncover for themselves, the better.

Despite these moments of purity, Bjork still overplays her cards, moreso than on any of her other albums. Most songs feel like mixed bags, with singular great ideas that are marred by the artists desire to push her boundaries. Where Is The Line is the perfect example of botched excellence. It also features Rahzel’s beatboxing for its foundation. His sequenced vocal samples seem to rhythmically play around Bjork’s vocals. The song is broad in scope, which is perhaps it’s problem. Although potentially excellent, it refuses to settle into its finest segments. Rahzel’s ancient swagger is wasted when Bjork decides to turn the song into a production experiment. Another such song, Oceania, was composed for the 2004 Olympic Games. It is a nice song, but musically and lyrically inappropriate for any prestigious event.

The reason that Medulla does not shine as bright as the other albums, and the reason that most of her lesser songs are unmemorable, are because Bjork tries too hard to push her boundaries and do something different or experimental. She is a pop artist, who has produced such defining melodies as Venus As A Boy, Isobel, Bachelorette, and Aurora. Her gift of talent to write simple, flowing melodies, is sacrificed for the majority of Medulla. Her treatment of the vocalists is also a mixed bag. Rahzel was a great idea, and so was Mike Patton. Dokaka and Rahzel work the last song like magic…sweet, dance candy. These three artists could have helped shape the album into a fun, rhythmic showcase for vocal talent, particularly Bjork’s. And really, isn’t Bjork’s voice the main reason we love her, and how she made her break in the first place?

While Rahzel and Patton’s performances are great, Bjork botches them on a few occasions, such as the Where Is The Line mishap and the awkward performance of Submarine. The song Ancestors probably should have never happened. While I am sure Tanya Tagaq Gillis is a fine throat singer, no one really wants to hear throat singing. Brave? Yes. Necessary? No.

While Medulla is hardly a bad album, it is easily the least accomplished of Bjork’s studio albums, mostly because her wonderful pop sensibilities are underutilized. The listener naturally clings to what is catchy and vocally impressive. These are the cornerstones of the album, and much of the rest is extraneous meat that could have been shaved off. It is obvious that Bjork’s creative masturbation will never end, but this is alright, because we like a lot of it. The difference is that Medulla seems made to please the mind more than the ear.

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