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Make Your Own Flag,
This review is from: Volta (Audio CD)
As those who have seen the making-of video for Medulla's "Triumph of a Heart" will already know, Björk's approach to songwriting frequently involves throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Her approach to albums is similar, to the extent that it is sometimes difficult to decide what constitutes a "real" Björk album. Selmasongs was focused and impressive, but very short. Drawing Restraint 9 was full length but, given such oddball inclusions as ten minutes of Japanese Noh, it hardly felt like the spiritual successor of Debut and Post. With Volta, however, we are at least back in the comfort zone again: this is her most conventional album since Vespertine, and arguably her most conventional since 1997's Homogenic.
Relatively speaking, of course.
Once you get the discs out of their preposterous packaging (one aspect of the production where further quirkiness is not to be encouraged) everything else runs surprisingly close to plan. The brass is back, underpinned by fog horns that add an organic and atmospheric dimension to the bass range. The unmistakable vocals of Antony provide an emotional intimacy that Björk's own melodic inventions sometimes lack, strengthening two ballads here and giving a greater sense of coherence. The introduction of kora, clavichord and (especially) pipa provides those flashes of instrumental colour that Björk so shrewdly interleaves with the customary percussion loops (although personally I miss the bells that added such sensuality to her recent albums). Generally speaking, everything sounds back on course.
Björk's commitment to surround mixes, after the excellent Surrounded boxed set, is clear, and the surround mix on the DVD (again by Paul Walton) is exactly what one would hope for, although the visuals are virtually non-existent and most listeners will probably just turn their television off rather than put up with them.
Despite the fact that this is a good Björk album, however, I am left with the sense that its weaknesses are almost as conspicuous as its strengths. Tracks such as "Earth Intruders" and "Declare Independence" have a mood-shattering brashness about them that forcibly reminds the listener that while her techniques involve intensive studio trickery, Björk's aesthetic roots are in the punk movement with its insatiable thirst for noise and provocation.
Björk remains as one of the most relentless sonic experimenters: capable of extreme beauty and unapologetic ugliness. The question is ultimately not whether the album is good enough ... the question is whether we are good enough listeners to appreciate it.