I am just a Martian, get prepared for abduction
I’ve been to Iceland. Once. I was nine. My family had been living in England for a year, and we were moving home to Baltimore when we had a sudden, unexplained and unexpected 12-hour layover in Keflavik. The airport was tiny, and for some reason it had a Hard Rock Cafe that wasn’t open. The cafeteria fed us this weird orange stuff that tasted pretty good. After a while, the airport staff decided that they should probably do something with this planeload full of extremely haggard-looking travelers, so they loaded all of us into a bus and drove us around the island for a couple of hours. It looked like the surface of the moon. I don’t think I saw a single tree the entire time. Instead, there was this volcanic brown rock everywhere, piled into these craggy mounds. My brother and I were really impressed that this rock had actually been lava at some point, so we took a couple of tiny rocks home and kept them on top of our dressers for a few years. At one point, we drove past the Blue Lagoon, and there was so much steam rising off it that you couldn’t actually see any liquid water. That two-hour bus-trip probably left a more vivid visual tattoo in my head than anything in the previous year in England; everything just looked so completely alien. After we finally got onto the Icelandair plane back to America, I actually remember reading an in-flight magazine article about the Sugarcubes and thinking they sounded pretty cool. But I’d probably associate Bjork‘s music with that layover in Iceland even if I hadn’t seen that article. Bjork comes from the one place on Earth where she can seem otherworldly to virtually everyone on the planet, and that’s an asset she’s cannily played up again and again over the past twenty years or so.
Bjork might’ve once had some tertiary connection to pop music, but her past three albums have pretty much effectively squashed that. More recently, she’s pushed goofy-ass album-concepts way beyond their logical conclusions, pulling collaborators from all around the world and using them to create immersive sonic worlds that feel like indigenous music from cultures that don’t actually exist. On Medulla, her all-human-voice album, she managed to find more interesting uses for the voices of Rahzel and Mike Patton than Rahzel or Mike Patton had managed in years. I remember walking around Baltimore while constantly and impulsively listening to the album on my Discman in the weeks after its release, letting it add weird shadings and textures to everything around me. Volta, the Bjork album that’ll be coming out in a couple of weeks, is apparently going to be her meditation or rhythm the same way that Medulla was her meditation on voice, and she’s assembled the sort of cast of misfits we’ve long expected from her: Antony, Konono No. 1, the drummer from Lightning Bolt. Bjork usually does stuff like this: she finds people who are extremely good at doing one thing (polyrhythmic thrashouts in the case of the Lightning Bolt guy, uber-fey vocal histrionics in Antony’s case), and she finds ways to make that one thing fit perfectly with what she does. What Bjork doesn’t often do is find pop geniuses at or near her level, people as capable of she is of reshaping the world to fit their vision. But one of the collaborators Bjork chose for Volta is her equal in every way, and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’re probably already sick of reading what I have to say about him: Timbaland. I don’t want to repeat myself too much on this, but Timbaland has spent the past ten years taking pop figures and pushing them into weird, weird places, usually with brilliant results. Tim has long been a vocal admirer of Bjork, and now they’re finally getting around to the Marvel Team-Up I’ve wanted to hear for a long time.
Those tracks began to leak a couple of weeks ago, and honestly, it’s been hard just wrapping my brain around the fact that this is finally happening. Despite his long record of weirdifying singers, I’d actually been hoping that Tim would help Bjork scale back a few of her excesses. My favorite Bjork album has always been Debut, which took joyous Crystal Waters disco-house to some deeply fucked places. Nobody makes club music better than Tim, so it seemed at least vaguely possible that the two of them would do something slightly less otherworldly together. That’s not what happened, though. Maybe those tracks started out pop, but that’s not where they ended up. In this Pitchfork interview, Bjork says that she actually completed a few tracks with Tim more than a year ago, and since then she’s been fucking around with the tracks, throwing all sorts of different things at them. I was a bit disappointed the first time I heard “Earth Intruders,” the first single, mostly because my brain didn’t immediately melt. But a few repeated listenings have teased its power out out a bit further. Bjork actually ties her voice down to the track’s roiling African drums, but the descending synths and processed vocal whoops give it the same sort of ancient, druidic feel that most of Medulla had. And “Innocence,” her other new Timbaland collaboration, has an eerie sort of spaced-out awkwardness, its rhythmic whump-noises and synth-stabs deliberately off-kilter and awkward. On Saturday Night Live this week, Bjork did “Earth Intruders” and “Wanderlust,” another new song and one that I have no idea whether Timbaland produced. She looked as comfortable as anyone ever looks on that stage, and the songs sounded as strange and powerful as anything she’s done since Homogenic. But honestly, Bjork hasn’t been a singles artist for about a decade. Her albums always feel like passive experiences; I can’t ever wrap my head around them, so I sort of have to let them wash over me. Volta won’t be out for a couple of weeks, though god knows it’ll probably leak any minute now, and I won’t know until long after if it’s the Bjork album I wanted. Right now, though, I’m happy in the knowledge that two utterly bizarre geniuses have managed to do utterly bizarre work together. That’s enough.