Drawing Restraint 9

(One Little Indian; 2005)

By Dom Sinacola | 26 August 2005

Björk’s latest release is a soundtrack, the aural companion to multimedia performance impresario Matthew Barney’s new film of the same name. This means everything you’d expect it to mean; a soundtrack that survives and succeeds apart from the subject that inspires it is a difficult enterprise to conceive. For all intensive purposes, Björk’s been married to a career congenitally defined by experimentation, yes, creating an immediate niche for esoteric whim, yes, and drafting a wholly alien persona. So, much of DR9 (to the X-treme!) is unsettling, unfamiliar and blessed with an egg yolk fluidity. But, minus a few negotiable “songs”—“Gratitude,” “Storm,” and, erm, maybe the celeste/contrales resonant “Cetacea”—this album is a meditative wash.

Which wouldn’t be a problem under less trying circumstances, but, steeped in the mythology of 14th century Japanese royal theater, of 8th century Japanese instruments, of whaling and of Shintoism and of Icelandic improvisation, Drawing Restraint develops something of an unconquerable alienation from many of its listeners. Don’t get into a huff: all us occidental solipsists deserve a hearty skin of Japanese tradition and disturbing electronic squall to irk out the borders of our hearty-enough world, and Björk’s dalliances with world renowned sho (a fantastically intricate reed instrument) musician Mayumi Miyata and Noh theater performers Shiro Nomura and Shonosuke Okura are refreshing for an audience versed in Björk’s canon and entirely arresting for those that aren’t.

But divorced from the film itself, the album’s cultural base becomes a matter of education, and in that sense, much more challenging than the “challenging” Medulla, or whatever. “Gratitude,” a letter to General MacArthur from a Japanese citizen regarding the leader’s 1946 lifting of the States' whaling moratorium on Japanese coasts, is sung through Will Oldham’s ribcage teeth and set against a convergence of celeste and harp, punctuated by a hollow, atonal children’s choir. Oldham’s vocal melody wanders as hypnotically as Björk’s so often does, imprinting the opening as decidedly her own, but he achieves something Björk might not have been able to; Oldham, a recognizable voice of progressive folk and Americana, provides a bridge between the East and West, paralleling the brotherhood offered in the original letter itself. Similarly, “Pearl” writes a nimble bed of sho, characterized by sharply dissonant ten-tone clusters, for Tagaq’s frantically processed throat noise. Combining meticulous studio acrobatics with precious, wailing sentences of Japanese lore is interesting, soothing and jarring at once, but both “Gratitude” and “Pearl” demonstrate Björk’s biggest drawback here.

Before I try to make sense of what that is and tie up the whole mess, I should mention “Holographic Entrypoint,” a 10-minute-long passage of Noh theater translated from a poetic piece written by Barney. This means ten minutes of warbling, patient, gothic chanting, pieced by scarce whooping and a steady diet of woodblock percussion. In Japanese. Apparently, this track serves as the background to a climactic scene in the film when Björk’s character and Barney’s character breathe through blowholes before flensing each other’s legs apart to uncover nascent cetacean tails. The movie, it should also be mentioned, has to do with “self-imposed resistance” vs. “creativity,” and follows the formal atrophy and reconstruction of a giant liquid Vaseline structure on the deck of a whaling vessel. I don’t know what any of this really means, and “Entrypoint’s” translated lyrics are as cryptic as one might predict, but without a visual impetus, Björk’s album doubly alienates itself from the listener.

First, through Björk’s enigmatic matching of sterile rhythm and incessantly human vocals, albums like Vespertine and Medulla, and Björk’s career itself, carry an ethereal distance. On top of that, blurry and heavy cultural cues, as well as plodding ambient passages, purposely stunted instrumental unity, and thematic benchmarks mired endlessly by a dedication to variety and originality push Drawing Restraint 9 further from accessible fair. Björk’s biggest drawback, then, is that while “Holographic Entrypoint” is an enlightening rarity, most of Björk’s fans will find it boring. Very, very boring.

So, it’s not that Björk’s growing penchant for divisive minimalism is boring, or that Japanese culture is boring, or that Matthew Barney’s work is necessarily boring. “Ambergris March” keeps a blissful pace of interwoven harpsichord, glockenspiel, and contrales while stippling light beats. “Hunter Vessel” and “Vessel Shimenawa” pit low breaths of brass portent against glaring beats from trumpets and trombones, never allowing the two to completely stay together. “Storm” is a shrieking bunker built from Leila’s programming. And all of the cuts are masterfully produced under Björk’s careful hands. Really, just re-listening to the album is, well, pretty boring when much of the audience can’t stretch out their arms far enough to pull the experience closer.

As a soundtrack, DR9 is a compelling next step in Bjork’s artistic funnel, shrinking closer to something more chilling and confoundedly intimate than she’s ever accomplished before. As an album, DR9 is horribly incomplete and complicated. You expected that kind of conclusion anyway, didn’t you? Right, which is why there’s enough unexpected here to warrant some thoughtful tourism.