NEW YORK - "Medulla" (One Little Indian) is a very important album for the Icelandic chanteuse Bjork Gudmundsdottir, because since she released "Vespertine" three years ago, which was a hushed celebration of the surreal, erotic, and electronic, she has been doing her best to cleave her career in two.
She released a greatest hits package in 2002, accompanied by a box set called "Family Tree," and in the past year she released four live albums highlighting the work of her first four solo albums.
Now the big question is what's next for the former Sugarcube, and the answer is to be found in the 14 tracks on "Medulla."
This record finds Bjork completing her proper transformation from the exotic indie princess of yore, to a High Germanic eccentric baroness with an Olympic cast of collaborators and a theme in mind: voice.
Recorded globally (in London, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, Reykjavik) Bjork builds this album solely on the human voice, relying on international beat box masters like Rahzel (of The Roots) and Dokaka - from Japan - to supply the foundations, while a choir of looped voices featuring ex-Faith No More frontman Mike Patton and Greenlandic throat singer Tagaq provide the harmonies to the songs that Bjork wrote.
On the surface it seems like a healthy choice after a decade of flirting with heavy electronic machinery. However, the result of all those voices is somewhere between curious and unnervingly bizarre. Some times the choir is majestic and full.
Other times it sneaks up behind you and scares the crap out of you.
On songs like "Mouth's Cradle" and "The Pleasure is all Mine" Bjork's fixations (singing and sex) get a full, sweet treatment, but all is enveloped in the ghostly background of a faceless choir.
On other songs, like the single "Oceania," everything seems to fall into place, and one can really recognize that Bjork's aesthetic of audio beauty has come a long way since "Venus as a Boy."
The triumph of the record is the funky last song on the U.K. and U.S. releases,
"Triumph of a Heart," as bouncy and pop as any of her best, a true symbol that the record has succeeded. Other songs, such as "Where is the Line?" and "Sonnets/ Unrealities II" show Bjork on familiar territory, with the former apparently dedicated to her brother.
Three shorter tracks, "Vokuro," "Oll Birtan," and "Midvikudags" (translated as Vigil, All the Light, and Wednesdays respectively) show us something unique, and that is Bjork finally breaking her silence on her native tongue and releasing Icelandic titles to a global audience. It reveals the fact that she feels more comfortable with her artistic impulses and is ready to indulge us.
In all, this album is the right move for Bjork, who has been singing professionally since she was 12, and who needs to prove very little to anyone, but apparently still yearns to do something different.
It's certainly not safe music, but it is not to be feared either.
It's more headphones music. Late night music. Alone music. Good music. It's interesting, a little academic, but in the right way, and for that it's undoubtedly one of the best pop releases in 2004.