A funny thing happened the more I listened to Björk’s Medulla.
I lost interest in it.
It’s a common occurrence to happen to any album, but Medulla left an astonishing impact on first listen. It didn’t take long for me to rank it on my year-end favorite list, but a few weeks ago, I took it off.
So what happened?
Medulla has been described as a “mostly” a capella album. Björk pushes the capabilities of the human voice as a musicial instrument, layering minimalist motifs, splicing up choral accompaniments, producing strange timbres.
The Icelandic singer cited Meredith Monk as an influence, and it definitely shows on such tracks as “Oll Birtan” and “Ancestors”.
The album travels a gamut of accessibility — from cryptic (“Mivikudags”) to clear (“Vokuro”), sparse (“Show Me Forgiveness”) to cluttered (“Where Is the Line?”), pop (“Who Is It”) to avant-garde (“Ancestors”).
There’s nothing she’s not willing to try, and there’s a lot here to appeal — and to challenge — everyone.
But that initial impact doesn’t last. After the creepy layers of “Where Is the Line?”, the dischordant harmonies of “Submarine” and the sweeping punctuations of “Oceania”, Medulla loses steam.
Thing is, Björk works best when her wilder impulses are tempered by — or conflict with — her pop sensibility. What made Post and Homogenic work so well are a combination of catchy hooks and bizarre abandon. Like throwing car parts, bottles and cutlery off a mountaintop.
Medulla edges close to abstract expression but doesn’t go all the way. How different would this album have been if it were “completely” a capella, instead of “mostly” a capella?
The album just isn’t weird enough. It would have been totally possible for Björk to go utterly bugfuck with her voice and still maintain that important tension with her pop self.
For reference, she should have looked to eX-Girl’s compact but wild 2000 album, Big When Far, Small When Close. The Japanese trio concentrated exclusively on their voices — slight drumming from Fuzuki aside — and produced a breathtaking work.
That’s not to say Medulla is a bad album. It would be tough to find an album more sonically beautiful.
“Triumph of the Heart” is a triumph of rhythm. “Vokuro” proves Björk needn’t limit herself to English. And “Where Is the Line?” is just plain cool.
Björk indeed succeeds in proving the mettle of the human voice. But a work this daring could have given more to discover over time.