In “Wanderlust,” the second track from Volta, Bjork sings, “I have lost my origin/ And I don’t want to find it again.” It’s something of a manifesto for a singer who, now in the third decade of a recording career that began at age fourteen, has fiercely refused to stay in one place for very long. Whereas most artists of her stature would have eased into cruise control by now, she has yet to churn out anything that vaguely resembles predictable self-parody. Such an adventurous musical vision can be alienating, though. Not all fans were ready to follow her where 2004’s Medulla — constructed exclusively out of the human voice — led them. But this unwillingness to settle down or anchor herself to any single sound or style is also part of her appeal. Like Medulla, Volta may not, at least initially, be everything you’d expect — or even want — from a Bjork album, but by now she’s earned a little trust: If she leads us off the beaten path, there must be something very important to see there.
Each of Bjork’s most recent albums has been marked by an almost hermetic level of consistency. From the pairing of swelling strings with laptop beats on Homogenic (1997) to the frost-bitten atmospheres of Vespertine (2001), each album inhabited its own clearly defined space. Volta, by contrast, reaches back to her more playfully scatological albums like Debut (1994) and Post (1995). On “I See Who You Are” and “Pneumonia,” Bjork’s vocal performance commands attention, dancing over skeletal accompaniment that suggests an almost improvisatory quality to their melodies. At the other end of the spectrum, pulsing and dissonant electro production pulls the weight in “Innocence” and “Declare Independence,” undercutting the heft her distinct vocal presence typically carries. The only common thread that ties such disparate material together is some bizarre musique concrete segues: falling rain, a babbling brook, and a dozen foghorns that create a shipyard symphony.
So much diversity is also reflected in the parade of guests that contribute to the album. Timbaland and LFO’s Mark Bell lend production chops; the Congo’s Konono No. 1 drops polyrhythms on opener “Earth Intruders”; and Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale and Sonic Youth-collaborator Chris Corsano add drums as well. Unsurprisingly, when these tracks feature rhythm, it’s pulverizing stuff. But, in spite of this host of influences, it never ceases to be a Bjork album — even when Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) joins her on two tracks. The fluttering affectation of his vocals is, for better or worse, attention-grabbing, but it never upstages the similarly quirky tics in Bjork’s delivery. In the duet, “The Dull Flame of Desire,” their voices tug back and forth for nearly seven and a half minutes. It develops slowly, but the song practically seethes with palpable tension by its end, amplified as Chippendale’s tribal rhythms elbow their way to the front of the mix. It’s unquestionably Volta‘s most affecting track.
If Bjork’s approach to music has remained vital and untarnished, her willingness to cast herself as a wizened elder statesman is the album’s conspicuous weakness. Her lyrics, though oblique, typically reveal incisive and poetic truths about personal relationships and intimacy. As she sets her sights on bigger targets, namely war and terrorism, it’s hard not to wish she’d remained as narrowly focused on the politics of personal freedom. “Earth Intruders” begins with marching footsteps and proceeds to trade clunky rhymes like “sharp shooters” and “parachuters.” It’s the kind of painfully direct agitprop that renders politically minded music heavy-handed, regardless of who is in the crosshairs. Likewise, when she implores listeners to raise their flags on “Declare Independence,” the punk ethos sounds three decades stale. It’s a shame for Bjork to pander to such an unsophisticated call to arms when the dignity of an enduring creative vision speaks for itself across Volta. After all, what’s the use of a battle cry after a career spent in the trenches?