hen I was 15, I spent two months in the north of Iceland working at a shipyard and wandering around the island's lush, green countryside. This was 1984, a few years before The Sugarcubes would release Life's Too Good and introduce Björk to the world. I never met Björk (though I stayed with her relatives), and I certainly hadn't heard of her when I was in Iceland (no one had). However, in the succeeding years I've never been able to think of Iceland without thinking of Björk. This is not just nostalgia, either; to me, no one better embodies Icelandic culture than the little elf herself.
Anyone who has visited the island knows that it is not only one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but also one of the most dangerous. Volcanoes, ice, storms and darkness are the elementary realities in this tiny country. Each year, without fail, some tourists will fly into Reykjavik, rent a four-wheel drive car, drive across Iceland's interior (which is almost entirely glacial), and drown in a flash flood or some other catastrophe. Icelanders will hear about these deaths and simply nod. That's the reality of living on the edge of the world, and it's the reality that has shaped Icelandic culture from its earliest Viking days to the present. To be Icelandic is to celebrate this edge by doing everything to extremes: to drink too much, fuck too much and work too hard. Icelanders relish the taste of whale blubber, celebrate summers with total abandon and mourn the utter darkness and despair of winters with suicidal anguish.
Björk is Icelandic through and through: an eccentric, unwavering individual who puts everything she has into every project. And while not everything she's done has been successful, she continues to push herself in new and interesting directions. Even by her standards, though, Medulla is a risk: an album composed almost entirely of vocals or vocal fragments, sung partly in Icelandic. Experiments like this don't often work, but somehow, this one does. It is probably her finest release to date.
Björk and her collaborators (Mark Bell, Matmos, The Roots' Rahzel, Dokaka, and Robert Wyatt, among others) have effectively pushed the concept of electronic music into new and unfamiliar terrain. Yes, this is an electronic work, even if the only instrument used on the album is the human voice. It's an electronic work in the same way that the diva's song in The Fifth Element and Karleintz Stockhausen's Stimmung are electronic works. The diva's song employed electronic manipulation of voice, allowing the blue woman to sing notes that no single human could ever reach. Stockhausen, meanwhile, used electronics to cut up human voices and to transform them into something not quite human. Björk's Medulla, meanwhile, uses electronics and vocals to do something even more daring: create pop music. The work has beats, melodies, hooks, choruses, and all the other things we associate with pop, but here all the beats and melodies are voices. Some of the voiced beats are recognizable as beatbox Dokaka's pops and tongue-twisting glugs; other beats and melodies are entirely the product of sampling and effects processing.
"Where is the Line?" is a good example of all this. It begins with Björk singing the title. In the background, something that sounds like a bass is heard; but it's not a bass—it's a very low voice. Soon, the two are joined by popping drum sounds from the beatbox; at times, when the beat speeds up, the vocals become vocalized drum samples. So there's Björk, a bass voice, and a drum voice; added to this is an angelic choir creating a melody, the occasional whistle to provide a counter-melody, and (in the bridge) a bunch of stuttering, fragmented vocal noises. Taken apart, all of these sounds could form the basis of a Fat Boys song, but drawn together as they are here, it becomes an eerie, fascinating exploration in sound manipulation. And, oh yeah, it's a cool song, too.
Not all songs are exactly as "musical" as "Where is the Line?" Some, like "Show Me Forgiveness" and "Vökuró," are more traditional a cappella works, with Bulgarian Women's Choir harmonies fleshing out Björk's solo voice. Others, like "Desired Constellation," feature 12k-styled digital minimalism extending and enhancing the vocals. Then there are songs like "Triumph of the Heart" that border hip-hop terrain by putting the beatbox front and center. And then there's possibly my favorite song, "Ancestors," which consists largely of what resembles the sounds made by a pack of wild dogs looking to mate (grunting, moaning, stammering, huffing, and breathing heavily in some orgasmic frenzy). In short, there's a lot here, much of it very eccentric and entirely experimental. Luckily, Björk's still a pop artist, so the experiments never waver too far away from a good hook, strong beat or beautiful melody.
Really, though, what brings everything on this weird album together is Björk's Icelandic aesthetic. There's something guttural, primal about the human voice, especially when it's doing something other than singing. The grunts, chirps, hums, whistles, and moans here all speak to the primal power of sound that has been a part of human history since the very beginning. Thousands of years ago, human beings lived in a dangerous world of animals and spirits and nature. Everything made a sound, and every sound was the product of either a demon or a god. The human body's ability to create its own sounds, even to mimic the sounds made by these supernatural forces, was perhaps the first step towards civilization: a chance for humans to master and control the world. The realities of Iceland put Icelanders closer to this natural, primal sense of the world: a world of nature and noise and all sorts of scary things. To me, Medulla is an experiment in transforming the primal power of the human voice into a 21st century context. It's an amazing effort, and it's one of the best albums of the year.
Reviewed by: Michael Heumann
Reviewed on: 2004-09-03