Björk follows in a distinguished line of contortionists using their voices to make twisted, comical squelches, from Howlin’ Wolf to Mark E. Smith, from Lene Lovich to the Fat Boys, from Mikey Dread to Poly Styrene (outside of pop, the tradition extends back to Richard Huelsenbeck, Spike Jones, and Mel Blanc). Depending on how you feel about whoopee cushions and screeching motorists, Björk can sound hilarious, scary, pretentious, or merely annoying, though in a context of locked-down beats and verse-chorus-verse structures, the whoopee cushion is more palatable. Or not. I know people who can’t fathom her appeal, and perhaps it’s her voice’s presence within the pop framework that irritates them so much: Had Madonna, a comparatively sober vocalist, sung 1995’s willowy, agrarian-rave epic “Hyper-Ballad,” I surely wouldn‘t have been the only rock critic I know to place it on a top 10 list for the ’90s.
Selmasongs, Björk’s new mini-soundtrack for Lars von Trier’s highly touted Dancer in the Dark (in which she also stars), has too much dark and not enough dancer—textured passages that might sound great with luscious visuals, but are mere din from a cheap CD boom box. The only exception is “Cvalda,” a gleefully anarchistic ’30s Hollywood musical homage in which Björk bends her throat into a chorus not dissimilar to Einstürzende Neubauten (though she didn‘t have to go and spend a lot of money on power tools to achieve the effect). In the process, she tosses off potentially dirty non sequiturs like she was the Kingsmen: “Tott-ay crash cack/fuck-ay bon sum/Prattle tattle crack suck buck fi-ya!” To pull off exhibitionist, almost deviant singing of this type, all you have to do is open your mouth really wide and try to swallow the flies buzzing around the room; in “Cvalda,” Björk swallows the room itself.