(Elektra; 2004)

By Dom Sinacola | 1 September 2004

With her fifth solo effort, Icelandic darling Björk recedes into humanity‘s noise, flirting with the first undulations of life. This is a lofty goal, and sexy to boot, but then again, this is Björk. Her approach is in creating an album composed almost wholly of vocal sound. Manipulating human noise through the electronic prowess of such dicers as Matmos, Mark Bell, and Mike “Spike” Stent (who, along with aiding Matmos on Björk’s Vespertine, has worked with Oasis and the Pet Shop Boys), Björk is collecting the stuff of souls in jars of clay; the human condition is a viscous sludge, she says, an Ink as primal as the excited squirts of jellyfish, older than “democracy” or “freedom” or even “God.”

But visceral deconstruction is only as elegant as the way in which parts are put back together. Medúlla has fantastic parts, from crisp beatbox percussion to jarring gutturals, but the sum of its appendages is a fractured LP, compelling and convincing in its intent, but just plain less satisfying than Vespertine or Post.

At one point in the chilling “Ancestors,” Mike Patton’s (Faith No More, Fantomas, Mr. Bungle) sweaty growls flounder against a chorus of panting and howling Björks, sputtering out before a hollow piano crowns the silence. It is reassuring to hear Patton’s identifiable squall restrained at the bottom of the mix where its greasiness helps the difficult track move. And the jagged dueling of Björk’s mewling versus Björk’s furious humping, bringing the track to a soaking climax, is a tad exhilarating. After all, her exchange with Patton only emphasizes the now legendary dichotomy of Björk’s image of Innocent versus unhinged eccentric. But though it’s a divine dance and a drooling one-night stand, the song crumples in on itself when some sweet sex noises seem to be the only moments that drive the track.

Still, Medúlla does begin with some fantastic promise. “The Pleasure Is All Mine” scoots in Rahzel’s delicious spitting with a great, thick and blue melody. Björk sounds terrified when her choir checks out, but the desperation and quake in her harmonies prove all the more convincing. “Where Is The Line?” is everything a diehard fan takes a cold shower over: industrial beat, gothic choir birthed from hellfire, and an efficient engine once again driven by Rahzel. And then there are songs like “Mouth’s Cradle:” four minutes of juicy brilliance and demonic ambivalence.

In fact, the highest points of Medúlla are in the spastic warping of its vocals. Icelandic throat singer Tanya Tagaq caws and croaks behind Björk’s swift club singing in “Who Is It,” while Japanese beatbox artist Dokaka twees the ever-livin’-fanfare out of Rahzel’s brutal rhythm; each voice is clear, the production, honey. “Submarine” lounges in Robert Wyatt’s hummed falsetto and blood-red smoke, and “Oceania” features an impish cameo by Kelis, her armies of goblins and fairies conjuring specters of scantily-clad Amazons. Tempered by a breathy black-beat, Björk sings of the formless membrane that hugs the past, of blobs and sparks and the purpose of the Universe.

These cuts stand up with the strongest moments in Björk’s career, but much of Medúlla misses the bar. “Show Me Forgiveness” is well-carried by Björk’s fissuring a capella, but it stops cold before registering little more than a few swells. “Vökuró,” an Icelandic cover of a piece by Jorunn Vidar, and the sweetly building “Öll Birtan,” cast gray against ivory, respectively, but the chalky middle loses the delicate balance and “Who Is It” squashes the will of both. “Desired Constellation,” Björks purple dirge, is a swarm of crickets slowly digitized. Tragically gorgeous, but ends up awkward in its conventional manner, sticking out dully from Medúlla’s hirsute hull.

“Triumph Of A Heart” brings the album close to its end with a clean menagerie of guest stars, rolling out Dokaka, Rahzel, and a bit of Schlomo for a tweaked disco boogie. Björk answers with a pump-crushing final anthem of sorts, going out breathlessly. It’s abrupt and winded, but mostly “Heart” is just incomplete.

There is compromise in crafting an album from vocals. Mediocre spots haze up the sharp flow of songs like “Mouth’s Cradle” and “Where Is The Line?” and their consistency stumbles. Though Björk’s intent is almost realized in the caveman racket of the beautiful vocal processing, the steady wall of sound, most highs just end up wearing out too soon. The burden of this album is heavy, and she deserves to shoulder the load, but Medúlla sags a little too much to the side.