Soundchecks Music Reviews

Volta by Bjork

One Little Indian TPLP160CD

Earth Intruders by Bjork


review by Daniel Coleman

Bjork's sixth album, Volta, is a far cry from her last, 2004's Medulla. Then again, everything ever released by anybody is pretty much a far cry from the vocal experiments and ethereal gurgling of Medulla. Such was the extreme leap in concept from the previous album Vespertine, it posed the question of what her next album could possibly be.

As unpredictable as ever, Bjork has created what could best be described as a greatest hits, minus the hits, recreating styles and structures that have appeared frequently in her back catalogue. That said, although the songs run on similar blueprints, there is still room for those sparks of true originality that makes each and every one of her songs seem like you've never heard anything like it before.

Collaborations with Timbaland on three of the tracks on the album were a surprise announcement and have stolen the limelight a little, but they in no way dominate the album. Bjork wanted a return a more accessible brand of music, but it doesn't mean that she has sacrificed the positive developments in her style that have evolved since Post.

Her first collaboration with Timbaland, and the opener of the album, Earth Intruders, is a heady mix of squealing synths and DIY tribal drumbeats courtesy of Konono #1. Bjork's enthusiastic vocal isn't marred by the busyness of the production, with powerful, other worldly cries exaggerating the lyrics perfectly.

With overworked samples, the second collaboration with Timbaland, Innocence, promises much but adds nothing to compliment the vocal. Conversely, Hope stands as one of the best tracks on the album. Timbaland's arrangement of Toumani Diabate's kora playing is perfectly weighted, but can do nothing to appease the lyrical content. Even some of Bjork's best warbling can barely excuse the poor choice of subject matter here. No one really wants to hear her singing about the nature of suicide bombings on something that sounds so exquisite.

It isn't the collaboration with Timbaland that should have captured the imagination, but the collaboration with Anthony Hegarty (of Anthony & The Johnsons). With Dull Flame Of Desire, we find a vocalist who can stand up to the power and emotive abilities of Bjork. From subtle brass arrangement to brooding, operatic crescendos, it entirely dwarfs the rest of the album with seven minutes of vocal mastery. A second collaboration on My Juvenile works just as well, but the simplistic backing creates a softer backdrop for the two to work within. Less a part-of than a feature in the track, Hegarty bookends poignant lyrics about the concerns of motherhood with sensitive croons.

Bjork herself puts in a good show of it too. Wanderlust is an example of perfect build, from simple horn samples and restrained singing to full on blasts of sonic pleasure. I See Who You Are is a deep and passionate account of fading lives, set against plucked Chinese strings that work surprisingly well with the ever-occurring horn section. The horns reappear in Vertebrae By Vertebrae; rising over slow rolling electronic beats and layered vocals. Pneumonia takes the award for most impressive vocals, roving up and down in pitch and power, with just the right amount of restraint to make it leave you both amazed with the ability and a little choked by the power of the lyrics.

Declare Independence is the negative on the album. A thumping electronic mess, littered with screaming and violent twists of tone. It just doesn't fit. It's by no means a bad track, the energy and feeling of it is right, but not in the context of the album. This sums up the album as a whole.

Although there are some real standout tracks on the album, they never seem to gel with each other, leaving the album a mash of disparate tones and intentions. Bjork's aim to push boundaries yet remain faithful to a loyal fanbase that decreased with Medulla has sent this album in all kinds of directions. That said, you listen enough and you'll start to build the links for yourself. Initial disappointment can mar the appreciation of this album. Her style always took investment and understanding, a certain mood or tone that is essential can be lost on the casual listener. If this album is anything, it is worth spending a little time with.

Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press