Egyptologist J.D. Ray once wrote, “To distinguish between the rational and irrational, between the world of the prosaic and that of the gods, is not the ancient manner.” Nor is it the manner of Björk, whose interest in connecting ancient and postmodern has characterized her career. Music was foremost among the communicative forms that, for the ancients, united everyday consciousness and the divine: This corporeal art allowed the gods of ritual and heroes of epic to enter the flesh of its makers, in a way that was not at all otherworldly but reliably immediate. Björk, who is in the midst of releasing an enormous CD and DVD series that demands a consideration of her place in not just the pop but the art worlds, also believes in an expressiveness that can eradicate the divides of consciousness— though like a true Romantic she frames hers in terms of instinct and emotion, not holy spirit. Many artists treat music’s magical ground as a given, but Björk harps on it, clearing the obvious roads back to the source—fairy tales, nature worship, erotic ceremony. If you consider such interests pretentious twaddle, don’t bother with Björk at this late date. Her increasingly serious attempts to capture the sound of how the gods enter us will just ruffle your rationalist feathers.
Björk’s career offers one crucial lesson that’s more about music than mythology, as the just-released four-CD Live Box and the performance DVDs Vessel and London Opera House reveal. Music, this work proves, is not a universal language. Rather, its basis in the body renders it radically individual—no voice or hand that makes it, nor ear that hears it, is shaped exactly the same. Perhaps because her own vocal quirks prevent her from emulating others—she manages her breath in bursts, almost percussively, and her native Icelandic has a guttural quality that blunts her English intonations—Björk has consistently looked to different players for artistic reconstruction. Burdened with a talent that seems less than versatile, Björk has used her collaborators to rearrange her own impulses, transforming her folky, arty sensibilities into club trendiness, laptop avant-gardism, postcolonial world music, easy listening, show tunes (the music she sings, apparently, when she’s drunk), chamber music, and back to folk. Showcasing collaborators as varied as tabla player Talvin Singh, jazz eminences Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, remix master Mark Bell, harpist Zeena Parkins, and microbeats crafters Matmos, Live Box eschews rarities in favor of useful repetition. Pristinely recorded, the collection demonstrates that Björk’s real musical distinctiveness is as an arranger—an artist eager to see what happens to her music when it occupies other bodies, and becomes not a personal expression but a slippery vernacular whose meaning changes as it moves among minds through flesh.
Björk’s own flesh is the matter manipulated in her videos, and Volumen Plus, which collects all of them to date, exposes her growing fixation on how singing expresses and stimulates a kind of mystical eroticism. An accomplished pianist, Björk never plays onstage or in her videos, keeping the focus on the effect her voice is having on her body. From the beginning she and directors like Michel Gondry, Nick Knight, and Spike Jonze have made metamorphosis her theme—she’s subsumed into a bear’s belly or a river’s current, ribbons unspool from her nipples, she’s growing horns, being built as a robot, dissolving into cyberspace. These changes cause both wonder and pain. At first, Björk mugged her way through such fantasies, unable to lend human subtlety to the special effects, but the videos from her most recent album, Vespertine, are both more explicit and more relaxed. The extraordinary “Pagan Poetry” short by Nick Knight, which features (artfully veiled) actual sex, and M/M’s sublimely still “Hidden Place,” in which mercurial substances migrate through Björk’s facial orifices in a striking image of passion’s pleasurable distress, elaborate on the ages-old art of linking the breath of song with the rising energy of arousal to capture eroticism’s force as it moves beyond words.
Words are the problem for Björk, her detractors claim. It was wise of her not to offer printed lyrics with any of her current releases, not because they’re unreadable (that depends on whether you know how to distinguish between proverbs and platitudes), but because, more than usual in pop music, they’re empty until sung. Just as she cultivates the changes subjectivity wrought on musical structures, her vocal language highlights dislocation, mispronunciation, artlessness. Slipping into Icelandic or her own private idioms, employing dynamics to push syllables into distortion, Björk shows how language is always grounded in another ancient place, the tower of Babel: Through words, we struggle to relate our interior realities, but words ultimately separate us. Björk’s immigrant tongue speaks of the centuries-old, irresolvable tension between language’s will to unite and power to isolate.