splendid > reviews > 10/29/2004

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Who Is It"

Buy me now
I got Medúlla two days ago, have listened to it roughly ten times since, and I'd still be lying if I said I have a perfect handle on it. Every second of the album is imbued with a strangeness, an ineffability, a powerful tension, an inescapable immediacy; indeed, I don't want a grip on it. I want it to keep gripping me, and I do not want to escape.

My first three listens were spent grappling with expectations. Listeners with their ears to the ground have already experienced 2003's definitive pseudo-primitivist album in the form of Dufus's brilliant 1:3:1, and when Björk announced that she was heading in a similar thematic direction, my first response was to pop the Dufus album back in to my stereo and give it a listen. The stage had been set. If this a capella album was to be the beginning of a rejection of technology, as Björk claimed, 1:3:1 would be my measuring stick. But Medúlla isn't any such thing. Each track may have been assembled almost entirely from the purely human elements of beatboxing and choral polyphony, but you'll notice that the liner notes list a "programming" credit for all tracks but one, as well as a number of production/engineering credits. If this tightly arranged, intricately (if subtly) produced album is bucking technological trends, The Flaming Lips have been writing songs about Neanderthals for the past decade.

So what do we really have here? A powerful, strange, unexpected and undeniably captivating album featuring a hell of a lot of Björk -- Björk moaning, Björk gasping for air, Björk sighing, Björk rolling her Rs really, really hard, and Björk weaving (and, elsewhere in the mix, responding to) subtle call and response structures. There's a lot of beatboxing as well. Also two choirs, Icelandic and London respectively. This could have been chaos. If it had actually had anything to do with its theoretical predecessor, 1:3:1, it would have. But Björk and her collaborators have each element under tight control. The choir has been reduced to a particularly expressive string section. The beatboxes might as well be synths for the way they've been utilized. We never forget who is in control -- as if there was ever any doubt!

There are decisions to be made, consciously or subconsciously, by each individual listener. Is it humanizing to use people as instruments, or is it dehumanizing? Does the menace sublimated to varying degrees in each song represent an unusual honesty about the human condition, or does it only serve to further solidify Björk's image as a devoted eccentric? Neither choice is wrong. What both sides of any argument will have to agree upon is the powerful sense of immediacy that Björk has achieved. It took me two more listens after the initial three to stop scrutinizing each vocal element as I would the chorus in a pop song. Even after the urge is suppressed, it subconsciously remains -- each "instrument", being explicitly human, demands our constant attention. This is initially very uncomfortable, but it gradually works its way down to strange and beautiful. Your first experience of "Where is the Line" will be of a song that is aggressively strange and threatening. By play number ten -- and you must listen to this song an absolute minimum of ten times, as soon as possible -- you'll realize that it's just a texturally fascinating bit of cinema with an emphasis on the contrast between Björk's high voice and some shockingly deep backing vocals. When the electronic distortion hits, goosebumps will rise, no matter how many times you've heard it -- but the first time, you'll be frightened that they might burst. The song clearly has it in for you...until it doesn't any more, at which point it's simply titillating and fun.

Likewise, "Ancestors" begins as an inscrutable (but very listenable) collage of whispers, fevered moans, piano and nonsense singing. With the training a few listen-throughs provides, it continues to be abstract, but takes on a recognizable form. You learn not to get hung up on the exchange of gasping female moans and throaty masculine growls. They are not, as you initially assumed, telling a story of sex -- they are suggesting the tone of one. It's like '70s whucka-whucka guitars, but with infinitely more emotional immediacy.

It takes a little training to know what to look for in each song, but they're all completely worth the effort. At the heart of all the initially distracting strangeness are musically sound structures and emotionally appealing sentiments. The question is not whether Medúlla is brilliant; insofar as this can be objectively asserted, it most certainly is. The question is really, Do you like Björk? Do you like her a lot? Obviously, a Björk a capella album is going to be lost on you if you never really liked her vocal style in the first place. Almost-painful Björkisms like "Desired Constellation"'s "I throw them like dice / Repeatedly... / Repeatedly... / I throw them like dice / Repeatedly.../ Repeatedly..." run rampant, and while I think "Oceana" is a beautiful, brave song about motherhood, there's a good chance that you'll find it needlessly obtuse, silly, or even creepy. But you probably already know where you stand on all this. It's Björk, after all.

Still, you don't have to be a fanatic by any means to fall under Medúlla's spell. It's an aptly titled (computer assisted) appeal to older, more brutal parts of the brain than the average songwriter has the courage or the wherewithal to engage. Eccentric, genius or both, Björk has created an album you could easily spend the next week of your life exploring. Artists like her make loving music very easy on the soul.



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