On 1997’s Homogenic, Björk bellowed, “I thought I could organize freedom/How Scandinavian of me/You sussed it out, didn’t you?” She was right; we had sussed it—which wouldn’t qualify us for the Olympic sussing team or anything. Organizing freedom is what Björk does best. It’s how she’s managed to shapeshift and glide in and out of hipster stylees without looking like a chaser. She can be needy without seeming desperate. In and out of zing-boom love, married to herself. It’s how she’s turned from a tinker-belle radio star into a swoony Guggenheim fetish. How she’s became the avant-gardest of the poppers, the poppiest of the avant-garden. How she’s managed to dance, glitch, croon, wail, huff, and hush—draping herself in a swan carcass at the 2001 Oscars like the vanquishing, winking Leda she is.
Medulla is a record made by somebody who really trusts her cerebrum and cerebellum. And why shouldn’t she? Her career has been a pageant of intellect and a circus of balance. And now, like the minimalists she’s so much busier than, Björk investigates the mysteries of life function—breath and blood surge and beat—controlled by the reptilian brain. It’s as if the Björk from the 1998 Michel Gondry–directed “Joga” video, who opened her sci-fi chest to reveal Icelandic landscapes, is now returning to hear the sound of that hidden place. Not sound rendered by instruments—by breath. And not only her own breath, but also the rhythm of gestating life. This is a motorcycle mama record for sure, conceived as Björk and her partner Matthew Barney began their collaboration on an eventually human zygotic installation.
Slicing through sometimes dense, often classically informed vocal atmospherics, Björk channels some weird, white foremothers. The melody of “Show Me Forgiveness” seems Ouijaed right from the Shaggs’ “Sweet Thing,” and the woof of “Where Is the Line” recalls the urgent trudge of Joni Mitchell’s “Jungle Line,” as Mike Patton shows up to growl over Rahzel’s beatbox push, and an Icelandic choir’s close-tone drone and whistling conjure a psychic state of emergency. Popped cheeks like Pong volleys recall the strangely organic roundness of early video game sounds. Frustrated amid love’s dissonance, Björk addresses perhaps a heavy fetus, perhaps a lover pirouetting past the vanishing point, “I want to have capacity for you/I want to be elaaaaastic for you.” The lush choral art-song “Vökuró” recreates the trepidation before a birth, while “Öll Birtan” mimics labor itself, its Lamaze “hi hi hoo”s climaxing in a ripping howl.
Where 2001’s Vespertine was erotic, Medulla is reflexive and awestruck. A mingling of postpartum jealousy and joy. The child-welcoming “Who Is It” nods to “world music” warmth with its throat-sung yelps and Rhythm of the Saints bounce just before the cool “Submarine,” penned with Robert Wyatt, retreats into chants that sound like the Beach Boys caught in the magnetic field of Solaris. The sensual ghost of Vespertine slides through an open window in the beautiful “Desired Constellation,” which finds Björk pondering cosmic justice over electro-cricket static. “Stars,” she croons ruefully, “I throw them like dice.”
Medulla‘s songs are like polygraph poems, measuring the biofeedback of creation and desire. Wondering, as our pixie MILF worries on vocal jazz ballad “Sonnets/Unrealities,” about the potential physical fallout that might occur “if on another’s face your sweet hair lay.” All of this she considers while trying to be a good, arty, independent, breast-feeding mom who can write a remix-ready club hit when she feels like it. After all of Medulla‘s mid-tempo choral layering, the sudden thrill of “Triumph of a Heart” shocks like defibrillation, its percussive “brrrrrrrrr” babbled by Japanese motormouth Dokaka over dance beats spat by a roused Rahzel. It’s the kind of yaba-yaba knee-knee-knee that gets Timbaland’s blood up. Freedom unleashed at precisely the right moment. We suss and suss and suss.