The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

From the outset, I have to admit that Björk is not an artist whose progress I follow avidly and lovingly. She has always struck me as the kind of artist to whom you pop your head in for a visit every five years or so. Thus after 1997’s Homogenic I didn’t really reconnect with her until 2001’s Vespertine, a finely drawn album of dreams subsequently rendered unplayable because of my circumstances at the time of its release (but then I need to go back and make my peace with the music of 2001 in general). The films I skipped, the art projects I distantly nodded at but failed to investigate and Medulla, an adventurous album had it been recorded by anyone else, was modestly intriguing but exactly what you would have expected from Björk, which wasn’t really, I don’t think, the idea.

But now comes Volta, encased in the bloodied fire of its package, and suddenly I have to listen again, for this is Björk’s strongest and strangest work in a decade. It begins with something of a red herring; the single “Earth Intruders” sounds uproariously futuristic on the radio with its muddily marching and splashing rhythms (from Roy Wood’s “Wake Up”?), Björk’s fitting hiss of “Voooo-doo!” and the disagreeable compatibility between Timbaland’s abacus string of beats and Konono No 1’s diagnostic diagonals of rhythm, but finally it is slightly too pat, a little too Björk-by-rote.

It is with the second track, “Wanderlust,” that the record really begins its journey; literally so, as nocturnal bells, hoots and blasts from sundry ships resolve themselves into pliable brass chords – something of a cross between Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band and Anthony Braxton’s tuba quintet – over which Björk sings, with initial restraint but increasing unrest, of her insatiable will to travel, not to remain in the same place even as the music manoeuvres through its parallelogram of repeated motifs, underlined by bracing, though still rootless, electro beats. Finally the exasperation overtakes her and she gives up: “Can you spot a pattern?/Relentlessly restless/Restless relentlessly” she declaims fearfully over high Morse Code trumpets.

Then comes a masterpiece. “The Dull Flame Of Desire” works around a patiently ascending cycle of a ten-line extract from a poem composed by 19th-century Russian poet Fyutchev, itself featured in Tarkovsky’s opus of rococo nihilism Stalker. Scored as a duet for Björk and Antony, again with a low-cast brass section and drummer Brian Chippendale, its passage from sparkling light (“To cast a swift embracing glance”) to deeper bonding (“And through the downcast lashes/I see the dull flame of desire”) is elegant, entirely logical, perfectly paced and beautifully performed; both voices bursting with noble desire, each gradually disrobing in front of each other, beginning to pulsate and harden as the brass climbs higher, Chippendale’s drumming becomes steadily more hyperactive (Gil Evans? Hindemith? A sexed-up Arvo Part with Elvin Jones at the traps?), all climaxing in Björk’s boundary-shattering “desire,” the voices disappearing beneath the thrusting avalanche of drums (the Righteous Brothers perform Tosca with Tony Oxley!) and all headed off by a

UH! And then a meaty punch! (Meat punching? Scott Walker??) Timbaland THRASHES his way back into relevance with “Innocence,” a gloriously gnarled atonal sculpture of punctumised wire and easily the best thing he’s done since that last Aaliyah album, at a stroke erasing the intervening half-decade of self-parody. As Björk gladly shrieks, “Let’s open up, SHARE!” the carousel careers upwards towards a pummelling fuck of a bea(s)t and then

all quiet, bedtime Aphex/Leila tinkles for the record’s peak, “I See Who You Are,” producer Mark Bell (of LFO) playing elusive with the song’s pulse (though he makes it explicit on the calm dance mix which closes the album). But the song’s centrality constantly moves away from the centre, with the constant deep brass (this album’s equivalent to a “lead guitar” or “Greek chorus”), Chris Corsano’s asymmetric percussion…and all the while Björk luxuriates in these being the days of our lives, wanting, DESIRING the tactile, the closerthantheearcanhear NEARNESS…”Let me push you up against me tightly and enjoy E-EV-ery BIT of YOU” oh YES!! and she wants this SO DEVOUTLY that it devours even the deranged kora samples which flow and peak and curve

and then that heartstopping middle section when the major key suddenly becomes suggestive of a minor chord, and the brass turns into an ominous, gathering cloud as the singer sings, very quietly, “And afterwards/Later this century/When you and I have become corpses,” before the beats and the happiness make their way back in as Björk sticks her finger up to mortality and proclaims “Let’s celebrate NOW all this flesh on our bones!” (the whole world should MELT around the smiling eclipse of her tender “lover”)…and that’s the message really, grab life (literally) while it’s here, don’t waste it sitting and thinking about what you could have done, in the right circumstances you could even become a kid again and relive the whole thing, come out of that fucking Ghost Box and LIVE and BREATHE and PALPATE and LOVE!!!! and SAIL the NINETY SEVEN SEAS of waves, of OCEANS into which the brass multiply at the end but really it’s the beginning!

But there is always the crepuscular journey to consider. “Vertebrae By Vertebrae” creeps along its railings of spiky Bernard Herrmann brass (is Volta the best use of a horn section in pop since Searching For The Young Soul Rebels?) and approaching Taxi Driver menace, Björk crawling agonisingly to who knows where with her most convincing and coruscating scream ever (1.47-1.50). Finally she must “let off some steam” and the rain and sea hush their whispering wetness once more…

As for “Pneumonia,” well, the singer sits, alone but for the chorus of French horns (think Carla B’s “Slow Dance (Transductory Music)”) and stares at the terminally ill victim (or is it herself?) with her “get over the sorrow, girl” and the “and your lungs are mourning TB style” though the real death she is mourning is “All the stillborn love that could have happened/All the moments you should have embraced/All the moments you shouldn’t have locked up” before increasing her tearful rage (it is somewhere between Van’s “TB Sheets” and Kate B’s “All The Love” as Sinead might have sung either) to encompass “And understand so clearly” (four seconds per syllable) “to shut yourself up/Is the hugest crime of them all/You’re just crying, after all/To not want them humans around any more.” Again the message is gently rammed forward; do not waste life, either yours or others, and where does that “stillborn” fit in exactly?…

…since on “Hope” with its actual kora (courtesy of Toumani Diabate) she bounds around the rhetorical question of “what’s the lesser of 2 evils,” namely a pregnant woman acting as a suicide bomber and whether or not she pretends to be pregnant while blowing herself and others up, Timbaland’s question marks of triggered beats always pestering the conscience, and what is worse as if anything could be better…she concludes “Well, I don’t care/Love is all/I dare to drown/To be proven wrong,” and leaves it up to you to work out what variety of love she means.

And I really would have liked a bolder Björk to release “Declare Independence” as the album’s lead singer since this is stingingly brilliant, one of the best and most naked things she has ever done; distorted 1979 No Wave noises and close-miked voice demand your attention and action (“Don’t let them do that to you!”). As her exultations become more and more hysterical (in the best, that is, the only, way) the music hardens and hardens and strengthens, through electronica moodiness shattered by abrupt splinters of glass guitar samples…it really isn’t that far from Throbbing Gristle; the Manchester mix of “Discipline” in particular…those repeated screams of “Justice!,” the beat getting ever more brutal, and by the time Björk is howling “And raise your flag!” (and answers herself with an eager “Higher! Higher!”) the music’s dance has become demented, beats now slamming like Alec Empire’s choicest axes. A manifesto! An extreme/extremist scream of DEFIANCE (“Damn colonials!”)!!

Finally, the reckoning, “My Juvenile” with clavichord taking the place of kora, Antony a ghost in her song now as “The Conscience” while she weeps “Perhaps I set you too free too fast too young” and sobs “The intentions were pure” while contemplating her actions – “I clumsily tried to free you from me/One last embrace to tie a sacred ribbon” (you may already be getting the idea that the underlying pain throughout the whole of Volta may have to do with that troubling “stillborn” I mentioned earlier). But again, Antony quietens her with a word. “This is an offer to better the last – let go.” It is a phenomenal performance to end an unclear journey but its central message remains potent and permanent – do not take life, in whatever form, for granted, and embrace it every second it is here, with you, with us. So I shall make more of an effort to keep in touch with Björk between now and 2012. Who knows what glories I might miss?

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