Volta is Björk's most accessible album since Vespertine, and at times of the whole decade, not because her imagination is curbed, or because she makes any compromises. No, it's going to bring back some fans scared away by her far-out stuff on Medulla and the Drawing Restraint soundtrack because she takes what she did on those albums and pours the ingredients into song structures and lays beats underneath. (And I'm not just being metaphorical; the brass arrangements of pieces on Drawing Restraint are heard again on "Vertebrae by Vertebrae" and "Declare Independence," changed in role from focus to support.) It's the best of both worlds, really.
The secret to Björk's creativity is her utter disregard of genre boundaries; all musical styles -- no, make that all sounds -- are fair game. She builds a song intro out of sampled foghorns, boats, and water sounds and it' more than a gimmick. She draws from different cultures -- electric likembÃ© (similar to mbira, the so-called "thumb piano") and homemade percussion from the Congo's Konono No. 1, the eerie vocals of Antony Hegerty (Antony & the Johnsons), pipa (Chinese lute) player Min Xiao-Fen, kora (West African 21-string harp/lute) player Toumani Diabate, the 300-year-old European clavichord played here by Björk and Jonas Sen -- and, because she incorporates their sounds purely as sounds rather than as cultural signifiers, the result is not musical tourism but abstract art. The brilliant results fit in no genre other than Björk music.
Nor are Björk's talents solely musical. Her lyrics are, as usual, highly poetic. Often difficult to parse on a literal or logical level, they are all the more evocative for that. Even when there's a relatively straightforward meaning on the page, more meanings enter the listener's ear: On "My Juvenile," "I send warmth" sounds equally like "ice and warmth."
The opening "Earth Intruders" with its Timbaland beats, surreal chant, and operatic wailing is as freaky as anything on the new CocoRosie album. "Wanderlust," the song with the foghorns, is one of many here that prominently features horn arrangements; like those from Drawing Restraint they are minimalist in texture, not at all the jazzy or soul-derived stuff of most pop brass. "The Dull Flame of Desire" uses a translation of a poem by 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Tyutchev, sung as a duet between Björk and Antony, with low-pitched, thick brass chords and a slow-building drum crescendo by Brian Chippendale (Lightning Bolt). "Declare Independence," with distorted electronics, a pounding rhythm, and Björk's screamed vocals, is harsher and more hard-hitting than anything on the new Nine Inch Nails.
Calling this strange, diverse set of songs "accessible" is definitely a characterization relative to Björk's other output, not to the American Idol level mainstream music has sunk to. It's hard to imagine most radio stations playing anything from here, Timbaland beats or not. But Björk has put just enough "normal" elements back into her music that non-Björk fans will be able to relate. Me, I think she's a genius. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based critic, poet, and composer who freelances as a developmental editor. He's biased, because he worked on it, but he thinks everyone should read Beyond Rationality: The Search for Wisdom in a Troubled Time by Kenneth Hammond, a pragmatic, in-depth examination of judgment and decision making that explains the flawed thinking that has given us the Cold War, the Iraq War, and too many other blunders. The most important book since Blink!