Record label: Elektra
Release date: 31 August 2004
Acapella records have been around forever, but very few have sounded like this. In someone else’s hands, this could have been either mildly amusing or mostly atrocious. But this is Björk we’re talking about, and she’s always up for a challenge. Not only that, but she has regularly upped the ante by delivering the sonically quirky to a larger audience for mainstream consumption. This time around, choirs from Iceland and London as well as human beat box artists, throat singers, and vocalists are involved (including Mike Patton and Robert Wyatt). If Bobby McFerrin or Rockapella first come to mind when you think of an acapella album, Medúlla will definitely destroy any preconceived notions you might have. Just listen to the opener (“pleasure is all mine”), full-bodied and orchestral, not a whiff of cheese to be detected. This is serious stuff, and we’re just getting started.
Very few instruments outside of the human voice are used for this album. Whenever they actually appear, it’s only as background: a piano here, a gong or bass synth there. The staccato bursts of breath from Rahzel (formerly of The Roots) are prominently featured on several tracks, most notably “who is it” and “where is the line.” Dokaka and Shlomo also contribute some mouth music; check out the highly danceable “triumph of a heart” (shout out to Gregory Purnhagen for a MEAN human trombone!!) as well as “oceania,” a.k.a. the song Björk performed at the Olympics last year. Singing both in English and Icelandic, Björk considers nature, love, relationship power struggles, and the work of e.e. cummings, painting vivid imagery along the way. “With a palm full of stars,” she sings on “desired constellation,” “I shake them like dice and throw them on the table…repeatedly until the desired constellation appears.” And considering our current political climate and post-election brouhaha, many will relate to her closing sentiments on “mouth’s cradle.” (“I need a shelter to build an altar away from all Osamas and Bushes.”) One of the most moving tracks is “ancestors,” a vocal catharsis that’s both touching and somewhat disturbing. Backed by only a piano, Tagaq almost sounds possessed while breathing, growling, and gurgling around Björk’s vocals, which pierce and crush the air unlike any other voice on the planet.
Credit is due to the expert programming skills of Valgeir Sigurdsson, Mark Bell, Björk, Matmos, and others. Their work is essential to making Medúlla such an awe-inspiring effort. This is undoubtedly one of the most engaging and challenging works released in 2004. She’s done it again. (Please note: a nice companion piece to this album is the DVD Inner Part of an Animal or Plant Structure (Snapper). If you’re the least bit curious about the making of the album or the meaning of its lyrics, you’ll definitely want to check this out.)