by Tim Den
I’m sure everyone has read the countless reviews calling Volta the exact opposite of what Björk has claimed it to be in interviews: Fun, a throwback to ’80s house/techno, and catchy. Well, for once, the masses are right, cuz Volta really is the opposite of all those things. It takes a huge effort to make it all the way through, contains none of early electronic music’s energy, and certainly has the least amount of hooks that Björk has ever put on tape. It’s sad but true, dear fans: This is Björk’s worst record so far.
Although she has repeatedly called Volta fun, even a cursory listen will prove quite the opposite. Opener and first single “Earth Intruders,” though quirky, is not much more than glorified chanting over a mundane tribal/hippie jam band beat. Is it fun to chant along? Maybe the first two listens, but beyond that, it becomes tedious and vapid. There’s not a weighty hook or any substantial content to hang onto once you’re familiar with the song. And what about “I See Who You Are,” “Vertebrae by Vertebrae,” and “My Juvenile”? These three in particular offer nothing more than impressionistic/almost improvised crooning atop shapeless (and sometimes dissonant) accompaniment that does little to invite melody or memorability. In fact, I dare say that any vocalist with a slight grasp of maneuvering in and around scales can come up with these three songs. Is it Björk’s fault for not singing better melody lines? Or should she have thought about that before laying down such awkward arrangements that’re nearly impossible to turn into decent songs, despite her angelic voice? Either way, the results are three of her worst ever.
And that would be okay if the rest of Volta bounced back from such a setback. Cuz after all, Medúlla (“Midvikudags,” “Öll Birtan”) and Vespertine (“An Echo, a Stain”) both had vague compositions that seemed to float nowhere, but they were counterbalanced by the rest of the album’s rich hooks and melodies. Unfortunately, since Volta doesn’t have anything remotely close to “It’s Not Up to You,” “Pagan Poetry,” or “Where is the Line,” the listener is left with a foggy mess to navigate through. Would you call that fun?
As for the claim of returning to ’80s electronica, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of the album moves at a slow, dreary pace, with only a few numbers offering uptempo material. And even then, it’s shoddy at best. “Hope” is an empty shell with no character, “Declare Independence” is a child screaming over a broken drum machine, and — as previously mentioned – “Earth Intruders” gets old fast. No, what Volta really does is continue on the journey started by The Music From “Drawing Restraint 9”. Think about it: Impressionistic soundscapes, barely-there melodies, heavy on ambiance but light on actual songs, dissonance taking precedence over melodiousness… Still don’t get it? Okay, how about all the ship horns in between songs? “Vertebrae by Vertebrae” is even based on samples from “Hunter Vessel,” for crying out loud! I’ve got no problem with Björk moving forward instead of backward: I think it should be the mantra of all artists to not regress. But it’s okay to endure abstract artsy fartsy-ness when that’s what you wanted in the first place – The Music From “Drawing Restraint 9” never claimed to be a record for the pop masses – NOT when you’re expecting a pop record. To entice your fans with promises of one thing and then deliver another is just plain confusing and wrong.
I’m not saying Volta is completely without merit, however. Three songs – count ’em – at the very least make ya not wanna turn ’em off. “Innocence” is typical Timbaland samples augmented by Björk’s playful chorus, “Wanderlust” reaches for emotional depth through dark melodies, and “The Dull Flame of Desire” actually satisfies the heart’s need to be moved. Repeating a short 19th Century Russian poem over the course of the song, Björk and guest vocalist Antony (of Antony And The Johnsons) twist and pour out many piercing variations of the same melody, gradually building toward a climax worthy of Selmasongs. You can actually feel the momentum increase with each passing repetition. It’s a patient, well-paced journey to the top of the peak. The fact that Antony wields a supernaturally warm-yet-chilling voice/timber certainly helps, too.
But in the end, Volta‘s short moments of goodness are utterly crushed under the overwhelming mediocrity the other seven songs have so much of. Sleepy, energy-less meandering and half-assed beats were definitely not what I thought we were getting from such a master of music. I pray that this isn’t the beginning of the descent.