catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 12 :: 2007.06.15 — 2007.06.29


Bjork’s Volta returns to an old theme

Rumor had it that Bjork’s newest album would be a return to the fun, pop side of Bjork.  The eternally strange and foreign singer who impishly moves from one sonic eccentricity to the next vowed not to take things so seriously with Volta (a word used to express a sudden change in thought, direction or emotion at the end of a sonnet).  Many eager fans, including myself, thought this meant she was going to give current icons and idols of pop music a run for their money.  But Bjork is still Bjork on this record, so put away all your expectations and predictions.

Bjork’s Volta certainly turns away from the seriousness of her last two records, but not as much as Bjork claims.  The 2001 release, Vespertine, whispered its secrets in glistening icy landscapes.  2004’s Medulla pulled the listener down into the dark recesses of Bjork’s innermost core with vocal pants, growls, groans and a striking lack of programmed beats.  Though Volta is a departure from the bleak imagery of these two albums, Bjork clearly has not given up on her mission of self-exploration.

Ever since Bjork played Selma in Lars Von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark she has been on a musical retreat into herself.  Her subsequent decision never to act in a movie again found expression in albums that seemed more like warm blankets for Bjork to curl up under than music for public participation.  It seemed as if Bjork’s acting experience made her more intent on exploring her own character rather than someone else’s.  This search for Bjork’s own self continues with Volta.

The centerpiece of the new album, the song that seems to bring everything together is “The Dull Flame of Desire,” a seven minute long musical build-up supporting a poem from Andrei Tarkovsky’s amazing 1979 film, Stalker.  The words at first seem merely to suggest an infatuation of two characters for one another, but there’s more to it than that.  When heard next to the previous track, “Wanderlust,” it is clear that Bjork is re-acknowledging her relentless restlessness.  She is the constant hunter, the one who is never quite satisfied, always searching after something new. 

Volta transitions in and out of songs with sounds of boat whistles, horns and train sounds, suggesting that each new song is a new island she has discovered.  But the striking photography suggests she also sees herself as the aborigine, the native of her own island and a singular tribesperson.  “Declare Independence,” the second to last track on Volta, reiterates the singularity she’s going for.  "Declare Independence" is a political song, a manifesto for a new kind of tribalism.

Bjork’s political statements really miss the mark, however, mostly because they seem to ignore the actual conflicts going on in our world today.  Like Medulla, Volta retreats from the world’s problems.  Though Volta is more assured and outwardly focused, its solutions are not any more relevant.  “I am leaving this harbor,” she sings in “Wanderlust,” “giving urban a farewell, its habitants seem too keen on god, I cannot stomach their rights and wrongs; I have lost my origin and I don’t want to find it again, rather sailing into nature’s laws and be held by ocean’s paws.”  Her attempt to avoid the issues at stake in the world’s conflicts are evident again in “Hope,” a song contemplating the ethics of a pregnant terrorist:

What’s the lesser of two evils?
if a suicide bomber made to look pregnant
manages to kill her target or not?
What’s the lesser of two evils?

What’s the lesser of two evils?
If she kills them or dies in vain?
Nature has fixed no limits on our hopes
What’s the lesser of 2 evils?

What’s the lesser of 2 evils?
If her bump was fake or if it was real?

Here’s my version of it
Internal whirlwind (I have fostered since childhood)

Well, I don’t care
Love is all
I dare to drown
To be proven wrong

Bjork’s own hope rests in paganism, a very old set of beliefs and practices that can be found in everything from witchcraft to modern science.  Let nature be our guide, says Bjork.  Forget about afterlifes or moralities.  For Bjork, these are dangerous ideas.  In a recent interview with Brandon Stosuy in Pitchfork Magazine, Bjork offers a Pagan alternative:                      

I mean, the human race, we are a tribe, let's face it, and let's stop all this religious bullshit. I think everybody, or at least a lot of my friends, are just so exhausted with this whole self-importance of religious people. Just drop it.  We're all fucking animals, so let's just make some universal tribal beat. We're pagan. Let's just march… But it's 2007, it's not some hippie shit—go back to your roots—it's all march forward.

Going back to her roots is precisely what Bjork sought to do with Medulla, and now Volta asks others to join in declaring independence from nation-states, religion and anything else that intrudes upon our tribal identity as human animals.

Though her perspective on life seems distant from the political realities of this world, its effect on the music is also problematic.  I would love to see a major creative talent like Bjork turn her energies to something less self-absorbed, something more transcendent.  The naïve joy that once permeated her earlier albums is gone and I wonder if it will ever return.  If this is what Bjork considers pop music—music for the people—she has a different idea of “people” than I do.  I can appreciate Volta for what it is, but I can’t help but wonder what it could have been.         

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