One Little Indian, 2005
Björk's latest original work is a soundtrack to an art film by her other half Matthew Barney. I'm afraid I am not artistically élite enough to have seen this opus of liquid vaseline sculptures, symbolic body-part severing and so forth, so you will have to do with a partially ignorant review of "Drawing Restraint 9" as a standalone album. Some of this series of short atmospheres are clearly grafted film accompaniment, such as the tracks with only the slithering sounds of the Japanese sho. But the album has enough striking musical ideas to allow it to work on its own. It does take some effort to disentangle the noodly scene painting from the truly musically inspired stuff.
Bluntly, Björk is of course becoming more far-out with each release. It's certainly not too far removed from the experimental ethic of "Medúlla", even though elements of that album's acapella grunting and squeaking appear only occasionally. Most notably on "Pearl", where those minimalist sho squirms combine with a polyphony of breathing and panting. On "Bath", ultra-minimal treated piano splashes accompany Björk's whispery vocal lines. It's this kind of extreme alternation of minimalism and shock-effects that is the hallmark of aloof artiness, and will make many dismiss her current works without a second hearing.
Obviously the most accessible moments of this as a standalone album are the actual songs. The first of which is "Gratitude" where Will Oldham's vocals, something like a softer Bono, twine gently above the glittery curtains of instrumental prettiness. A sudden (Japanese?) children's chorus adds some surprising colour. This icy tangle of instruments, like harp, tuned percussion, bells and harpsichord, that litters a few of these pieces is a familiar sound from Björk's "Vespertine" days, and provides the ear candy to soften the blow of the more extreme stuff.
The brass-based instrumental "Hunter Vessel" is an imposing centrepiece, and nothing like Björk has ever done before. It expands from a rumbling brood (something like a darker brother to the brass from David Sylvian's "Let the Happiness In") to a burst of Stravinsky-like stabs. These increase in speed and tension, until the final tolling chords over shifting wind textures. It's really a strong piece of contemporary classical.
The other main song (although not in English) is "Storm", but this is a far less pretty affair. Björk's vocal scoops are released without inhibition over a dusty backing of raw electronics and sea-mimicking white-noise. The traditional Japanese noh vocal wobbling and block-bashing that comprises "Holographic Entrypoint" is likely to make most untrained Western ears (including mine!) turn off. This was supposed to accompany the film's climax, but at a whole nine minutes this makes the latter half of the soundtrack album somewhat lop-sided. Fortunately the soft bells of "Cetacea" follow afterwards to soothe our poor ignorant sensibilities.
September 7, 2005