catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 15 :: 2004.09.24 — 2004.10.07


Mystery music

When Icelandic musical sensation Bj?rk sings ?The pleasure is all mine? at the beginning of her newest album, Medulla, the words are wrapped in numerous voices, most of which are her own. Bj?rk?s introspective focus sets the tone for the rest of the album. An almost exclusive use of the human voice throughout Medulla makes up the sonic landscape of this dark, brooding exploration of Bj?rk?s own core.

The title of the album is an ancient Latin word for marrow?the center part of animals and plants. As Bj?rk imagines it, the innermost core is abuzz with all kinds of pulsing and humming sounds. Loud prolonged breathing and short gasps serve as essential percussive and harmonic elements, creating a primal emotional effect. In songs such as ?Ancestors? and ?Mouth?s Cradle,? the barrage of vocals layered on top of each other can seem overwhelming, but in ?Oceania? and ?Desired Constellation,? the result is breathtaking. Bj?rk does not neglect to offer a few danceable tunes. ?Who is It? moves like a Michael Jackson song circa 1991, ?The Triumph of a Heart? pumps like bubbling blood through the veins and ?Where is the Line? is Bj?rk?s attempt at choral head banging. Other highlights on the album include a gorgeous Icelandic lullaby (?Vokuro?) written by Jakobina Sigurdardottir and ?Show Me Forgiveness,? a confession that has Bj?rk singing nakedly without any accompaniment.

Overall, the entire album is dark, murky and foreign. At least one of the songs is in her native tongue and three other pieces sound like they?re in another language. It?s almost as if the album comes from a far-away land with its own unique culture and musical heritage. The feeling of foreignness comes also from the fact that Medulla is such a highly personal document, that its meaning and pleasure sometimes seems reserved only for Bj?rk herself. Many of the songs seem impenetrable unless the listener knows the personal circumstances, concepts or imaginary scenes Bj?rk is working with. Knowing that Bj?rk was coming out of a pregnancy with her second child during the making of the album makes sense of songs like ?Where is the Line? and ?Pleasure is all Mine.? Being aware of Bj?rk?s negative experience making a film with director Lars Von Trier might reveal the necessity for the album?s second track, ?Show Me Forgiveness.? Reading about Bj?rk?s experience of making music again after a long hiatus puts the heavy feeling of ?Submarine? in context.

Knowing that Bj?rk felt like an outsider while living in New York during and after 9/11 might offer clues as to why there is such a feeling of foreignness in the album as well. It is tempting to suppose that her New York experience might have encouraged Bj?rk to make a musical return to her homeland, going back to her roots and escaping the rest of the world?s self-inflicted problems and over-dramatized political squabbling. But Medulla is not strictly an Icelandic affair. This is not the music of Bj?rk?s own particular homeland. Many of the unusual ?languages? we hear are Bj?rk?s own vocalizations?wordless utterances that, according to some anthropologists, are what primitive human beings used to communicate with each other before the evolution of speech. Utilizing the oldest form of human expression, Bj?rk seems to be evoking a foreignness that is strangely close to our own origins. Bj?rk claims the album is meant to take us to an ancient place, long before religion, politics and patriotism. Bj?rk?s declaration in ?Mouth?s Cradle? that she ?needs a shelter to build an altar away from all Osamas and Bushes? may seem like a desire to escape the evils and conflicts of this world, but if Bj?rk?s intentions with Medulla were really to go back to a simpler and more innocent time, the music itself goes against such an interpretation.

Medulla dives deep into the complexity of the human heart. It is Bj?rk?s darkest and most obscure album yet, reflecting the clash of feelings and voices within ourselves. Uncertainty, self-assurance, simplicity, complexity, the urge to self-expression, subdued playfulness and the re-awakening of creativity all emerge out of the inky blackness of the music, reminding us that the problems and political conflicts of our current world are not the only strange mysteries worth paying attention to in 2004.

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