I’m just beginning to dig into Björk’s Médulla, but the most striking thing about it so far – aside, of course, from its moments of thrill and thrall, even on iPod headphones – is the way that it uses the human voice, digitally processed, to explore the nature of musical representation. You can’t throw a rock in a record store without hitting an album that concerns itself – whether self-consciously or otherwise – with technological reproduction, but Björk’s album takes a counterintuitive approach to technology in order to play with musical codes. Médulla dazzles us with futuresonics and then pulls the curtain away to reveal that the Wizard was not a god or a machine, but just a dude (or a woman) with a microphone all along.
The fuss about this being an “all-vocal” album is misplaced, I think. What’s interesting is what she does with the voices – and again, not just musically, but as representational ciphers. On Médulla, Björk’s approach to the human voice is doubly imitative: human beatboxes and processed voices imitate drum machines imitating real drums.
I suppose, though it does not bother me, that these nuances will be lost on many listeners – just as, without the widespread press push proclaiming the album’s vocal emphasis, many listeners would not have realized that the drums were in fact voices. Such is the finesse with which she’s pulled off the project. (On the ever-more irrelevant IDM list, meanwhile, some readers expressed consternation that Björk is getting credit for crafting an all-vocal album while Kracfive had done the same thing before. Yes, and so did Iz and Diz on their “Mouth” track (way too housey for an IDM dogmatist to care about, of course), and so does Jamie Lidell in his live sets, and skipping back over many, many, many antecedents, so did Joan LaBarbara in Voice Is the Original Instrument, which Björk namechecked in Alex Ross’ New Yorker profile, and so did Todd Rundgren, as Marc Weingarten points out; so in sum: get over it.)
In crafting her rhythms, Björk draws on two parallel strains of experimental beatmaking – hip-hop’s beatboxing (which itself brings together hip-hop’s emphasis on cutup rhythms, which would be unthinkable outside the realm of mechanical/digital reproduction, with hip-hop’s vocal roots) and techno’s reliance on programmed rhythms that could never in a million years be played by real, live musicians. Only, in this case – aided, of course, by an unknown amount of programming – they have been, at least after a fact, especially on the breakbeat-imitating “Triumph of a Heart,” or the feathered-riffed “Oceania.”
My friend Anthony Huberman, a curator at Sculpture Center, noted a few weeks ago that the crucial question for any curator is always “Why now?” which I think applies equally to Björk’s maneuver. Why, now, choose to make an “all-vocal” album? Especially since the sound of the record, barring the liturgical-sounding “pure” choral pieces like “Vökuró,” does not diverge radically from the sounds and textures she conjured on Vespertine.
The answer, of course, lies in Björk’s concept of the relationship between humans and machines -- a relationship that, despite our enslavement to email and cell phones, is thwarted again and again by conservative artcrit and rockwrite and po-faced, "won't-somebody-think-of-the-children" humanism of the Michiko Kakutani school. In that regard, this is Björk's most cyborg record yet, tearing down the divide between “human” and “machine” music (not that it hasn’t been dismantled before, but these things take time and repeated demolition crews). Like Herbert, she reminds us that in the age of samplers, any sound can be harnessed – so why not the voice? She undoes rock’s fake Luddite conservatism by allowing machines to speak for themselves – the singing here may be divine, but it would fall flat without the “artifice” of samplers and software. She tweaks electronic music’s prejudice for hackneyed futurisms by putting groaning rave stabs in the mouths of her singers. All these false divides and distinctions soften like gum and dissolve like sugar in her singers’ mouths. And while it may sound like a pedantic point, it’s one that few other musicians have grasped so clearly or made with such eloquent force.