- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

Bjork

Volta

Electra

Maybe it’s a bad idea to read too much into album art in the download age, but there’s something about the cover of “Volta” that perfectly embodies the spirit of Bjork and her work.

The Icelandic singer stares diffidently from inside a trippy costume that resembles a pear with oversized blue feet. Here, Bjork is packaged in a brilliant but hollow shell. It combines the uneasy glitz of a corporate logo with the commodified authenticity of a tomato costume sewn for a TV commercial about an elementary school pageant. It suggests the strangeness of marketing an experimental artist as an international star, and imputes to Bjork a dazed ambivalence about the experience of being packaged for consumption.

Bjork is that rare creature: an artist who appears to make no concessions to the mandates of celebrity, while at the same time enjoying popular success. In 2004, she released her overtly experimental album “Medulla,” comprised entirely of parts for the human voice. On “Volta,” she continues in a similarly daring vein, straying far from the club-land rhythms that have characterized previous LPs. Here, the rhythms are darker — at once sultry and martial — and possessed of a taut immediacy.

The melodies are crashing and often grand, touched off with portentous brass swells, there carried by the plucking of the pipa — a Chinese stringed instrument similar to a lute that can sound as reassuring as a lullaby or as threatening as a barbed-wire banjo.

One of the most compelling passages is a sonic interlude that leads into the song “Wanderlust.” It is composed of foghorn tones, perhaps with a little baritone saxophone mixed in. The tones bleat and blatter in call-and-response, then play over each other, interlacing over the sound of a lapping surf. The sounds give way to Bjork’s lament on “Wanderlust,” as she sings, “I have lost my origin/and I don’t want to find it again.” The sound that Bjork crafts throughout the album has no single identifiable origin. It plays across pop and classical themes, and draws on a global palette of instruments and musicians — with drum parts from Congolese collective Konono No. 1 and contributions by Chinese pipa master Min Xiao-Fen and Toumani Diabate, who plays the kora, a west African stringed instrument. There’s also the 10-piece Icelandic brass group assembled by Bjork expressly for this recording, a duet with Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) and production by Timbaland, who has produced such hip-hop stars as Jay-Z and Missy Elliot.

It’s a tightly constructed effort that produces some deeply felt, moving songs; though other tracks feel uncharacteristically blank and haunted by the ghosts of good intentions. The most overtly political track, “Declare Independence,” attempts to strike a note of defiant iconoclasm with lines like, “start your own currency/ make your own stamp.” But against the hypnotic drone of distorted guitars and thumping dance club rhythm, it sounds as fatuous and contrived as an ad slogan. On the love song “The Dull Flame of Desire,” guest singer Antony’s vocals are an unexpectedly honeyed touch amid a soaring dirge of horns.

The record is full of such sonic paradoxes. Some of them work, and some of them don’t. There is nothing here as playful or as upbeat as on Bjork’s earlier albums. The marketing material hopefully suggests that “Volta” demonstrates Bjork at her most accessible. But, in fact, Bjork’s new record, like “Medulla” before it, sounds like nothing else besides itself.

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