Sunday, August 29, 2004Today I did something I haven't done in a very long time: I put on my headphones, laid down on my bed, closed my eyes, and listened to an album, in it's in entirety, for the first time. I used to do this a lot, in high school, and every now and then during the semester I lived alone in college. It's pretty amazing how differently you hear an album when you listen to it this way, and it's crazy how rarely I allow myself to do so. Why is it that we always feel a need to be doing something else when we hear music, be it drinking, washing the dishes, talking, whatever? I think it's like staring at the sun: music is powerful, we're afraid it might burn us.
The album I listened to tonight was Medulla, Bjork's new one. In case you've somehow avoided the pre-game spin, this album was made using only sounds created by the human voice, with the occasional synth or piano, and lots of digital editing. But I don't really want to talk about that. I actually don't want to review this album. I just want to offer up some thoughts.
It's amazing how far outside the sphere of pop music Bjork is working these days. The music on this album is so experimental and abstract, I wonder how the press can possibly digest it. I mean, how is Joe Pitchfork supposed to react to a piece of music that has nothing to do with rock, pop, hip hop, and only a thin connection to electronica? Instead this album references the very dawn of Western music, when the tonal system wasn't really in place yet, and Europeans were just fucking around with the sounds they could make with their mouths in attempt to express the infinite. I'm talking about Hildegard of Bingen, plainchant, motets, really fucking old music. Bjork has explained this album as an attempt to get back to the roots of music, and it sounds like she did her homework. I urge anyone who takes an interest in this album to seek out that stuff, then listen to Bjork as she takes these ancient harmonies, digitally multitracks ten tiny versions of herself singing the parts, and lets Matmos chop up Rahzel's beatbox accompaniment. The word "postmodern" comes to mind, as does Meredith Monk; I can hear my music history prof's head exploding as I type.
Emotionally this album is wide open and raw. I got chills listening to it, often. Bjork has a knack for expressing the twin peaks of wide-eyed, seeing-the-world-in-all-its-glory wonder and wide-eyed seeing-the-world-in-all-its-complete-and- utter-fuckupedness despair. I bought her last album, Homogenic, about two weeks before September 11th, and from that day on it has sounded like a funeral. That album hit on the sadness that sensitive people feel when they come into contact with life's shittier realities, and 9/11 and it's aftermath - yeah. It was like Bjork had seen the future and was already crying. I've barely listened to it since the towers dropped.
Bjork says this album is a response to those tragic events. It's interesting then to listen to this, her actual response, and compare it to what seemed like her response in the first place, and will always feel like it for me. I hear more chaos here, an acknowledgement of the dark possibilities that can drop out of the sky at any moment. I hear it in the gnashing, grunting vocal sounds she's using, sonic representations of a the pre/pan-civilization human impulse to violence / the part of humanity that creates the shitty stuff / war. She surrounds herself with these nasty, ugly sounds, builds them into a baroque chorus, and sings over them. I guess this is how we live right now.
This is why Bjork is an amazingly talented musician: She's created an album that hits me square in the gut, gets me thinking about the big picture of what's going wrong in this world, and how I relate, and she's done it without any heavy-handed political sloganeering, half the time without any comprehensible lyrics. The sounds themselves and the lyrics that I can make out are not comfortable, and these should not be comfortable times. It's political music because it confronts the listener with a world-level despair for humanity and what we're doing right now - and what we're doing right now is killing each other, and we've been doing it for a long time, and it's sad- at a time when most people, or at least most Americans, or at least I, would rather turn away.
I'm not sure if I can listen to this again. It's like staring at the sun. Or a dead Iraqi.