Since Homogenic, Björk has plotted a singular course that has taken her further and further away from the mainstream pop audience. The hushed laptop ballads of Vespertine, the voice heavy Medulla and the outré Drawing Restraint #9 were all singular works – never less than interesting, but at the same time not really that engaging. They were albums that were easy to admire, but hard to love.
The advanced word about Volta seemed to indicate that it was a return to the beats and big songs of Björk’s mid nineties material. This is partially true, but it’s a rather more interesting record than that would suggest. This is an album of such diversity that it’s a wonder that it hangs together, but it does. What is remarkable is how some of the most commercial tunes that she has recorded for a long time are meshed with some mind-boggling arrangements to leave a work that is unique, experimental, but also a thoroughly rewarding listen. And there’s stuff you can sing along to too!
Much has been made of the high profile collaborators, but all of them bring something worthwhile to the record – you never feel that it’s a case of Björk showing off all her famous mates! The opener “Earth Intruders” is the most in-your-face track that she’s recorded since “Army Of Me”. The beats are provided by Timbaland, and are truly like nothing I’ve ever heard. Just as remarkable is “The Dull Flame Of Desire”, a duet with Antony Hegarty that also features Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale. I’m far from Hegarty’s biggest fan, but I may just have to revise my opinion a little, because this is a really affecting performance.
Not everything is of the same high standard. “Innocence” features a squelchy techno beat (again courtesy of Timbaland) that wouldn’t be out of place on Post, but its not really much of a song. But generally the material is worthy of the care taken over it.
The arrangements on Volta constantly delight in juxtaposing things that don’t seem obvious together, but nevertheless work well. The brass band and oriental chimes on “I See Who You Are” don’t work on paper, but sound utterly natural together on the track. Similarly, Toumani Diabate’s kora fits perfectly with the skittish beats of “Hope”. “Declare Independence”, with programming by long-time collaborator Mark Bell, is probably the most un-Björk like thing on the record. It pounds away like Skinny Puppy or Front 242, with a harsh, distorted vocal that sounds more like Kat Bjelland than Björk!
It takes a few listens to get used to Volta. It may well be Björk’s best album yet. It’s certainly the one I can envisage playing the most in the future along with my trusty copy of Homogenic. The packaging is elaborate and arty. Nice to look at, but not very practical. (The scan is of the inner sleeve – or one of them – because the outer casing looks crap once it’s been opened).