The inclusion of Razhel, Shlomo and Dokaka on Medúlla was, perhaps, Björk's sly suggestion that she was ready to foreground beats again. One of the people to help her? Timbaland, who gets three production credits on Volta. It makes some sort of sense; if Björk had debuted in 2007, it's possible that she would have turned to the likes of Timbo -- who was in the midst of his production Silver Age -- instead of electronic musicians.
While Volta was refreshing in its redbloodedness, it's remarkably flabby for a running length of just 51 minutes. The album was released in different configurations -- some outros became intros -- which meant that for some releases, each of the first three cuts are over five-and-a-half minutes long. It's an eclectic mix of sounds, to be sure: four continents contributed players, helping Volta run the gamut from American to Zombo. And it's not as if Björk had been saving up all her instrumental ideas since Vespertine, either: in 2005 she released Drawing Restraint 9, the soundtrack to the feature-length film by visual artist Matthew Barney, her current partner. Though more formless than Volta, it similarly employs an extended cast (Will Oldham, Vespertine harpist Zeena Parkins, shō master Mayumi Miyata) and far-reaching arrangements.
The result of this cultural smash-and-grab is a record that smacks of curation, rather than collaboration. Konono Nº1's electric likembés are overpowered by Danja's synthbass and Timbaland's distorted "whoas". While the return of the long-dormant coy vocal flavor was a welcome thing, the references to voodoo and muddy bodies are beneath Bow Wow Wow, let alone Björk. "Hope" is a fine showcase for Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, but Timbaland's contribution to the pattering throwback is difficult to suss out. Antony Hegarty's second album appearance (on "My Juvenile") is one too many; he does acquit himself well on "The Dull Flame of Desire," a brass-fortified duet of ominous triumph. (Oddly enough, the stirring horn arrangement of "Wanderlust" evokes, in retrospect, Hercules and Love Affair.)
Volta is certainly not bad -- how could it be, with a cover that stepped straight out of Pepperland? -- just overstuffed. Its simpler tracks tend to be the better ones. "Vertebrae by Vertebrae" focuses on pneumatic drum programming and horn honks suited to a film noir low-speed chase scene. Returnee Mark Bell, back in the fold for three tracks, provides the album's highlight: "Drawing Independence," an electro-punk fusion that goon-stomps into the red with claustrophobic bass and and carelessly triggered cymbals. There is fun to be had on Volta, but it must be extracted.
We like to talk about artists’ contradictory impulses, but with Björk, it’s more apt to talk about unities. In a career that’s nearing its fourth decade, she’s coupled many of the major dualities: intellect and body, auditory and visual, nature and technology. A map of her stylistic forays reads like a condensation of Rip It Up And Start Again: a very early folk start, then stints in post- and anarcho-punk outfits, followed by a series of idiosyncratic dance broadsides pasted onto pop’s center pole. She could have made a career of issuing albums in the vein of her first two: textured, au courant electronic-pop. Instead, she invested her capital into a series of ambitious, sprawling sonic expeditions.
Björk is frequently described as a “pop star,” which makes sense as component concepts. She’s placed 20 singles in the top 40 of the enviably omnivorous UK charts. No one has used the medium of short-form music videos to display so much wonder; in doing so, she collaborated with a staggering number of film, design, and fashion heavies: Michel Gondry, Sophie Muller, Chris Cunningham, Alexander McQueen, Eiko Ishiokam, Spike Jonze — even Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi. She’s sold millions of records, has a legion of dedicated fans, and the financial freedom to attempt nearly every project she can imagine. And still, she is not quite a pop star, at least not Stateside. To most Americans, the mention of her name conjures visions of swans and assault charges. She can headline Bonnaroo — as she is doing this year, alongside Paul McCartney, Mumford & Sons, and Tom Petty — but she’s never placed a single higher than No. 84 on the Hot 100.
Still, Björk exists in that rarified air of commercial success, critical adoration, and creative freedom. She’s a saint in the indie-rock community — an amusing happenstance, considering the major-label resources that have been at her disposal since her Sugarcubes days, to say nothing of the genres (electronic, dance-pop, jazz) she investigated. But the reason she’s beloved are obvious: She has made a career out of succeeding on her own terms, ever since her Crass-associated days with KUKL. The stereotype of her as an aloof Icelandic sprite may persist, but Björk remains a restless, collaborative artist, capable of effortlessly expressing her humanity through whatever raw material interests her. Discussing Kate Winslet’s performance in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (directed by frequent collaborator Gondry), Björk noted to the Guardian’s Liz Hoggard that “[u]sually when you see females in movies, they feel like they have these metallic structures around them, they are caged in by male energy. But she could be at her full volume without restrictions.” And so it has been for Björk in a career that shows no sign of creative regression.
What follows is a ranking of Björk’s seven studio albums, with her soundtracks for Lars von Trier and Matthew Barney omitted. Let the music-video ranking debate commence in the comments. Start the Countdown here.