The cold but emotionally bare soundscapes of Bjork’s sixth album, Vespertine, were revealed to the public only a few weeks before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but the music could be a real-time unraveling of an artist’s consciousness. Often described as precious, the work was fragile and jagged, as if it had already been smashed into a million pieces and calmly put back together, its cracks still evident in the care with which it was handled. The emotional impact of such a work on an already reeling brain is indescribable.
Bjork, who lives mostly in New York, said that Medulla, Vespertine‘s proper follow-up, was influenced by her September 11 experience. Direct evidence of this is all over the record: the mild political statements; the song title "Vokuro," Icelandic for "vigil"; and the purposeful space between sounds. But it isn’t commentary Bjork strives for. It’s humanity, and it’s splashed all over Medulla in broad strokes with bright colors. The album is an almost-entirely vocal affair; abandoning her orchestral trend of the past five or six years, Bjork has instead collaborated with beat-boxers Rahzel and Dakoka, an Inuit throat singer, and an Icelandic chorus.
The most traditional songs will be the most talked about, but they are also the least necessary on such a challenging album. "Who is it?" is a mostly typical Bjork anthem, replacing her electronic sound with the concept-appropriate but still conventional human beat. "Triumph of a Heart" closes the album with an awe-inspiring performance by Dakoka, who helps create a dance beat complete with trumpet that could have fit right in on 1993’s Debut. They’re excellent additions to her catalogue, but both seem to be bereft of instruments simply to serve the concept. Fortunately, Bjork arranged them as lynchpins, holding the record’s emotional strands together.
These strands are the core of Medulla, her most joyful work since Post and also her strangest. Its warmth is deceptive, luring you in while challenging your notion of human contact. The mournful exhales on "Pleasure Is All Mine" are preludes to the sloping harmonies on "Submarine" and the playful vocal work on the brilliant "Ancestors," which calls to mind the best work of the Books.
The album must be viewed as a response to and an extension of Vespertine, but the compositions imply a rebelliousness, a refusal to play by Vespertine‘s rules. Even with the most noticeable comparisons — "Desired Constellation" and its IDM music-box beat in particular — the album’s warmth shines through.
Medulla is a celebration more than anything else. The best song on the album, "Oceania," was composed for the Olympics; its swooping chorus recalls the migration of birds or the time-elapsed drifting of icebergs, a swirl of beauty and power crashing down onto and then rising above the mix. It culminates in the near screech that leads into the sexy-spooky coda, "Your sweat is salty, I am why …"
Tragedy results in a broad range of effects on people. Bjork has taken the high road with Medulla, the journey back into innocent fascination. Her world-music unity would imply a hope for peace and love, but all Bjork wants is understanding, a peace and love not in the world around you but within yourself. The process of healing is unique to nature, and Bjork is asking us to reclaim that process. We depend on the communication that comes with each person’s voice; our world is a collection of those voices, each self-defined. By illuminating this, Bjork is throwing the stars like dice; when the desired constellation appears, the power of human expression is fleetingly exposed.