Björk | Medúlla | Release Date: August 31, 2004

Reviewed By Troy Tolley

Björk's latest album epitomizes the difference between "Art" and "Craft". Björk has long been dismissed by mainstream pop for the most part because of that very difference. "Art" is always new, original, someone's specific idea given reality, and in most cases does not immediately (if ever) resonate to any obvious, common denominator. "Craft", on the other hand, is someone else's original idea, someone else's "Art", reproduced, mimicked, and given life through someone new. Much of what becomes commercially powerful is based on the works of "Craftsmen", not "Artists". Art requires a moment of you, a pause in your normal thinking and feeling, and asks you to participate in the experience, while Crafts are simply produced for your immediate consumption. One is not better than the other, but understanding the difference can greatly improve your ability to appreciate Medúlla, Björk's most experimental, powerful, and personal work of Art to-date.

That being said, it is highly recommended that you give yourself at least three good listens to this album before drawing any conclusions about this work. When exposed to something so utterly creative and new, there are no internal references to make it immediately "catchy", but as with many Björk projects, after about three listens, you begin to "get it" and the songs become yours.

Medúlla is Björk's album that she says returns her to herself, brings her back into a wholeness she felt she had lost after her painful submersion into the role of Selma in Dancer in the Dark. Her work on 2001's Vespertine was a step in that healing process, but she has stated that Medúlla is a return to her strength and confidence that she hasn't felt since 1997's Homogenic. And Medúlla is certainly a bold album.

Medúlla is a collection of nearly, entirely, exclusively vocal explorations and expressions. Albeit in typical Björk-style, the vocals are processed through computers as a means to expand on the capacity of those voices, but somehow, as usual, she manages to retain the heart, heat, and breath of the original life-force that went into those sounds. Rhythms are created from raspy throats, guttural groans, and human beat boxes such as the famous Dakoka. Harmonies are created through the unlikely convergences of voices ranging from demonic depths of Mike Patton from Faith No More to the angelic, otherworldly voices of the Icelandic and London Choirs. Throughout all of it is the vocally acrobatic and inimitable Björk in all of her returned strength and glory.

Medúlla is named after the medical term for "marrow", as Björk felt this album was an excursion into the very essence of humanity. Björk has explained in several interviews, "I was going to call the album 'Ink', because I wanted it to be like that black, 5,000 year-old blood that's inside us all; an ancient spirit that's passionate and dark, a spirit that survives. Something in me wanted to leave out civilization, to rewind to before it all happened and work out, 'Where is the human soul? What if we do without civilization and religion and patriotism, without the stuff that has gone wrong?'"

Beyond the theme of "essence" on Medúlla, the lyrics hint at themes of Inner Balance, as well, which of course may be at the very essence (or medúlla) of humanity, being a more natural state than we have ever considered.

She addresses the question of boundaries being thoughtlessly crossed in the dark, haunting, and almost ominous Where Is The Line, singing, "enough is enough". Addressing the power inherent in exceptional generosity on The Pleasure Is All Mine, she sings, "to get to be the generous one is the strongest stance; when in doubt, give". She counters this song with Desired Constellation, a mournful and achingly beautiful lullaby-like song about the inherent guilt experienced at the receiving end of exceptional generosity, singing, "It's tricky when someone has done something on your behalf; it's slippery when your sense of justice murmurs underneath, and it asks you, how am I going to make it right?"

While this album is being touted as "a capella", it is on Show Me Forgiveness that one really hears Björk completely unaffected and unaccompanied in this hymn-like song of self-acceptance amidst shame. Who Is It is one of the catchier, more immediately-accessible songs on the album, with Björk seeming to sing about the strength gained from someone else, but upon closer inspection beyond the catchy beats, you will find she is asking you to acknowledge yourself as that unending resource: "if you ask yourself, patiently, and carefully, who is it, who is it, who is it that never lets you down, who is it that gave you back your crown, who is it, who is it". Listen carefully on this song for a diva-like, singing style that I have never heard Björk use before, during the echoing words, "…now I'm handing it over".

On Sonnets/Unrealities XI, Björk sings poetically about the joy that can be found in the surrender to loss, based on a work of E.E. Cummings called "It May Not Always Be So". On the kinda-creepy, quartet-like song, Submarine, Björk's voice is mostly subdued to equal status with her guest singers, focusing mostly on the deeper, male vocals, with a short burst of herself in the middle. Ancestors is the most experimental and most likely difficult to enjoy of all the songs of Medúlla, tossing all of the guest vocal expressions into an adlib, spontaneous, and amazing pool of near-chaotic (but not quite) sound.

You may mistake Vökuró, Wednesday (Miðvikudags), and Öll Birtan as purely Icelandic songs, which are a rarity for Björk to include on a commercial release. In fact, Vökuró, with its cathedral-inspired majesty, is the only song in Icelandic language. The other two songs are Björk's very own Icelandic "gibberish"; a vocal unfolding, or unraveling, of emotional sounds from within. Öll Birtan does an auditory prance with multiples of Björk singing along with and over herself as she creates her own breath-beats. Wednesday (Miðvikudags), which sweetly feels like you are hiding in a hall between various rooms leaking out the vocal warming exercises of gifted singers, is in fact just that - spontaneous vocal warm-ups and exercises that would evolve into the song, Ancestors.

Triumph of a Heart is a definite reinterpretation of "old skool" Björk, creating a very danceable tune, but out of nothing but voices, of course, and forcing even the most resistant listener to move. Inspired by her own experience of pregnancy, Mouth's Cradle is Björk's auditory interpretation of what a musical would sound like about the startlingly powerful and transformative relationship created through absolute nurturing, particular between a mother and a baby who is literally nursing, singing about "this toothless wonder".

If Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, or Faith Hill had sung at the Olympics, we would never be able to escape the impositions of that song, but with Björk's thoughtful, compassionate, and embracing song of equality and unity, we will never hear it commercially. Oceania opened the 2004 Olympics with an anti-sentimental yet emotional reminder of an elemental connection among humanity: Water. As the ocean sings of the pride she has for her human children from the sea, Björk's dress unfurls across thousands of athletes, all color coordinated to create an image of a global map of continents glowing up through the sheer fabric. "You show me continents, I see islands; You count the centuries, I blink my eyes; …your sweat is salty, I am why…"

Björk and her music represent the diversity, rarity, and absolute uniqueness of each of us, along with commentary on the profound continuities we share as a human race, despite our imposed, superficial differences. Some may find Björk weird, self-indulgent, or too "out there", but that is the very thing we are to someone, somewhere. Some may find Björk boring, repetitive, and corny, but that is the very thing we are to someone, somewhere. Some may find Björk a genius, a true artist of her life, and profoundly important, and someone, somewhere, thinks the same of you. Björk knows we are as similar as we are different and she makes no apologies for being who she is in that tapestry of humanity.

Medúlla is an effort to return us to who we really are: pure expression, playful curiosity, and a surprising spectrum of rhythm and harmony.


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