“Who Is It” is one of the great gifts of Bjork’s canon. Since Bjork’s natural tone is so optimistic and up, the songs where she’s pushing past a melancholy melody line and dissonance are often her most delightfully tense. Think of how bittersweet the melody in the chorus gets by “The ornaments are/They’re going around.” The tone of the song turns this statement from a blank triumph into a tender, happy sadness that life can be so good.
There’s a painfully funny scene in “Knocked-Up” where Paul Rudd’s character freaks out on shrooms in a hotel room and exclaims, “Why would anyone love me?” It is funny and resonant because it is something we all feel at our worst moments, when all of our pain and faults and weakness make us seem so unloveable. Paul Rudd’s character then realizes something even worse: he was rejecting the very person who did love him. We love people for their face and hands and for the way they dance funny or their bad record collections, but the central core of love hits us when we recognize that someone else has a terrifyingly deep love for us. That is what “Who Is It” is about, for me.
“Who Is It” forms a thematic arc with two previous songs. “I Miss You” is dwelling on the possibility of love; “All Is Full Of Love” converts that possibility into the glimpse of its fulfillment; and “Who Is It” is the final consolidating of that glimpse into a realization that this is it: this is the person I want and I need. This is the person I can trust my pain and love to. If you ever had this moment in your life – the moment when you realize that someone loves you for you – it is as sweet and sad as that emotional dip on “ornaments.” It is a moment of relief: it is the ending of a tense negative expectancy you didn’t even realize you were feeling, and it paradoxically, makes you cry with happiness.
The vocal mixture on the song is incredibly rich: there is Rahzel doing the beats and providing a warm depth to the expression of love; Tagaq gasping and crowing like excitement bubbling underneath; Bjork overlaying her feelings of love in a tempered, thoughtful fashion. On a charming Canal+ show (unfortunately no longer on youtube), Bjork, Tagaq and Rahzel perform the song live. The three, rather than appearing like some collection of performers, seem like an authentic community or family. They are adding their voices, their unmediated, personal support to Bjork’s expression of love. Contrasted with Vespertine‘s interiority, much of Medulla feels, for me, this rich and warm. It is no wonder that so many of the songs (with the obvious exception of “Where’s The Line”) are about generosity and forgiveness: the emotions one feels for one’s closest friends and family.
The bell chorus version that is used in the video of the song is perhaps even better than the original. It sharpens the atypical melody work of the original, so that the song, especially in the chorus, keeps setting you up for pop chords and then subverts those expectations. The use of bells of different sizes keeps the song’s movement organic (listen to the slow, spine-tingling tolling of the largest bells). The bells are also part of Bjork’s “de-churching” of church music that, I’ve mentioned, forms the core of Medulla. Meaning, as indicated by the traditionally religious aesthetics used in Medulla, is taken away from external and possibly non-existent “truths” and returned to where it belongs: to the “skeleton” of love between you and those closest to you.
Considering I have some experience with what Bjork is singing about, you’d think this song would resonate with me more than it does. But it doesn’t, and like “There’s More To Life Than This” it seems like Bjork is playacting the emotion of the song rather than genuinely feeling it. Which is fine – she was still young, and we have plenty of evidence that her emotional range has matured.
Her superficiality on this song is also probably due to an effect of her naturally optimistic outlook. Bjork didn’t manage to harness sadness well until … actually, never. Come to think of it, Bjork really doesn’t do sadness. (Weird, hunh?) Even when she does do sadness – like “I’ve Seen It All” – it comes off as bittersweet happiness. Bjork is way too nice to force her negative emotions on other people. She’d rather say “It’s okay! I’m only going blind! Nothing to see!” than bring someone down. I think it’s an interesting point to consider about such a wide-ranging artist, and I’ll get back to it when it is more appropriate.
As for the backing track: it is pretty dated. It still pops and crackles, and I enjoy the loneliness-of-the-dancefloor bit (“There’s no one here/And people everywhere”), but the dated signifiers overwhelm the song’s enjoyability. “Venus As a Boy” comes on right after I’ve finished playing “Crying” and the comparison is shockingly unfair to “Crying.” Not that the song doesn’t try – there’s even a hard rock section filled with geetars – but it’s all lateral, competent perfection with nothing weird or hooky about it. And the weirdness seems so mannered that it only adds to the song’s deadness.
What is exciting to note – and this is true for most of Debut – is to compare Bjork’s voice with how it’s since evolved.
-Her voice is thinner and less warm than what she’d achieve on “Joga” and later tracks, but it has a great naivete she never had again.
-It is more controlled than her Sugercubes work, though. She tended to be more punky and screamy with that stuff, and here, as in most of Debut, she is stretching herself by putting on different poses. “Crying” is a song for the forlorn pop diva, so it is understandable that she’d err on the side of perfection rather than raw emotion.
-Her voice is breathy and feathery: she brings in power either at the beginning of her syllables or at the end (and in the choruses) and lets the rest of the word flap in her slightly wheezy-sounding vocals. In later work she’d tone down the wheeze and make her voice more clear.
-Her English has some idiosyncrasies she’ll lose later: she pronounces “carefully” with a sort of soft “ch” like “L’Chaim” (she does something similar on “Life” when she says “jettoblaster”).
There’s a point in the long-term relationship when you are left with one argument. Every disagreement, after enough discussion, devolves into that basic argument. Aaliyah’s song “We Need A Resolution” hit me when I first saw this. “Am I supposed to change?/Are you supposed to change?”: eventually, in a relationship, change becomes arbitrary. Both partners have committed so many crimes and history has become so muddled that rationality is an impossibility.
In this climate, power is what drives change, and the generous always loses. “I want to be flexible/I want to go out of my way for you,” Bjork sings, but “You … cash/Into accounts/Everwhere.” This song closely follows “The Pleasure Is All Mine” and it refutes and moderates that song’s magnanimity. Because it is shocking, turning the other cheek can be a successful option against strangers. For loved ones, it simply encourages them to strike again, out of fear, out of love, out of disgust at their own selfishness and the weak generosity of the one they love. Bjork chastises herself: “Enough is enough.” You shouldn’t pay out more than you can afford.
The vocals, like most of Medulla, are Gregorian chants excised of their Christianity, with Rahzel spitting out aggressive beats. The album is an attempt to secularize meaning, to show that Christianity’s beauty can be stripped out of its dogmatic essentialisms. In “Where Is The Line,” the indirect target is Christianity’s tendency to crush its strongest believers, its most conscientious, with self-punishment. The song is a buoyant liberation for the too-forgiving. It is a declaration of justified war against the selfish lover, and is appropriately dressed as a flight of valkyries underscored by machine-gun beats. If he can’t find the line, the song says, maybe you should push the line back yourself.
I’m not a fan of Antony Hegarty, and his presence on this track was initially worrisome to me. Antony is a wonderful singer, but I think his persona and voice usually drips with sickly sincerity. When he’s campily belting out a dance tune, he’s actually quite endurable, but most of the time he’s sweating under a bag wig, moaning about his transgenderism and lashing out at misogynistic music reviewers. (I’m always amazed by the ability of intellectuals to endure the scourge of sincerity when it’s coming from someone with art-house signifiers but not when the person is, say, Britney Spears.)
Bjork, on the other hand, doesn’t do sincerity very well. Like Beyonce, everything for Bjork is an open show, as frankly artificial as it is beautiful. And Bjork is probably at her least sincere on Volta: the whole album is very clear and upfront, and the emotions of her songs feel purposely denuded of their interiority. It’s a curiously overthought and negative way of presenting pop music, and it is probably the cause of some of the album’s problems (as well as its unexpected strengths).
With this strange mix of factors, it is a relief to see that “Dull Flame” is one of Volta‘s more successful tracks. It is an odd love song: despite its love lyrics, it isn’t very romantic and it is slightly cold. It’s more in line with the way love songs used to be presented – as sprightly objects of beauty – than the Conor Oberst sad-sackery that we tend to expect. The song is Romantic with a capital “R”: rather than Homogenic‘s sweeping swings, the horns sound like they were lifted from some late 19th century patriotic Nordic tune.
In this environment, Bjork clearly excells more than Antony. I tend to drift away whenever Antony begins singing, but Bjork brings me right back. When you are striving for such a cold beauty, you have to sound like you are working your ass off, that you are earning it. Antony just sounds a little freaked out – stripped of his emotional come-ons, he’s directionless – and he can only manage some good runs when he is backing Bjork or when his neurotic compactness contrasts with her fearlessness. Bjork, in contrast, is swimming with the current. It’s her song, after all, and she has a wider vocabulary of tones to work with and that keep listeners interested over the song’s taxing seven-odd minutes.
And despite some problems and a smidge of boredom, Bjork can make “Dull Flame” excite. Most particularly, I love when she repeats the chorus for the final time, and Brian Chippendale’s drumming becomes the only accompaniment to her crystalline and final repetition of “desire.” Every time I hear it, I get a shiver from the song’s icy, tribal beauty.
Considering the movie is supposed to be, in part, a homage to Hollywood musicals, Dancer in the Dark is probably one of the most obnoxiously condescending commentaries on Hollywood (and America in general) I’ve ever seen. Even worse, its creaky, manipulative plot is not even comparable to the Hollywood movies it ostensibly pays tribute to/criticizes. Proper melodrama or tragedy is not great because the events are violent or depressing. Instead, it is entertaining because the events are so unexpected. You spend three hours loving the melodrama of Gone With the Wind because you have no idea what the fuck is going to happen next to the seemingly impossible-to-destroy Scarlett. Or, when the tragedy is presaged, you keep watching because it feels like everyone is doing everything rationally possible to avert it: Romeo and Juliet could have been happy if Juliet had woken up five minutes sooner.
But Dancer in the Dark doesn’t try to do that. Selma is presented as some sort of retarded saint who keeps doing the exact wrong thing. In fact, it doesn’t feel like she’s operating as any sort of free agent. Throughout the movie, it feels like she’s doing exactly what Lars Von Trier is screaming at her to do, no matter how messed up it is. Lars Von Trier said that Bjork ate parts of her costume while filming because she couldn’t handle his direction. Whether this story is true or not, it does indicate that the man who would be willing to retail a story of his emotional abuse as a funny anecdote is kind of a big fucking jerk, and maybe eating your dress is the only rational response to it.
All of this is unfortunate because Von Trier has an impressive visual sense, and the songs in the movie are more successful than the film itself at what Von Trier claims he wanted to do. Bjork obviously has a fondness for show tunes – she redid Betty Hutton’s “Blow a Fuse” as “It’s Oh So Quiet” – and her populism ensures that she is more in line with the spirit of musicals than Von Trier’s sour European nihilism.
“In the Musicals” is, appropriately enough, probably the most musical-y of the movie’s songs: after all, it is about how joyous musicals can make you feel. It has the catchy and singable chorus melody that a good showstopper should have, and it has a peppy, bobby-socks rhythm. Even with its unconventional samples of pencil sketching and balls bouncing, it doesn’t try to stray too far out of showtune conventions, and has the right silly, overdramatic strings that busily build and abruptly fall away to create the song’s emotional arcs.
It is, in fact, probably a little too conventional. It’s more of a quotation of a showtune than a real showtune, and doesn’t capture the instinctive knowledge of Tin Pan Alley traditions that, say, Stephin Merrit achieved for his showtunes. But this is a minor quibble. In a better world, Von Trier would have created a movie that more accurately reflected the importance of the song’s vividly expressed love for musicals. As it is, the movie around it seems to have decided that anyone who is uplifted by them – uplifted by American art in general, I would argue – is a “tragic” retard sucked in by empty illusions.
The song in the movie. The dancing is actually fun (although it totally has that clammy Nordicness that Bjork seems to have successfully exorcised). Bjork’s voice is more strained in this version and she sounds like she has a cold. It’s actually quite nice – I kind of wish this version was the album version. Also, note to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie: the judgment was not read in Spanish, although maybe it should have been.
With music that is the aural equivalent of a sinus headache, “Enjoy” is the successful version of “There’s More To Life Than This.” When Bjork sings, “I wish I’d only look/and didn’t have to touch” with the lack of affect that usually indicates depression, it makes the song much more emotionally believable than the giddy voice that squeals out “ghettoblaster” in the earlier song.
This is perhaps why, when I first owned Post, the lyrics to “Enjoy” were hopelessly cryptic to me. At the time, “Enjoy” was one of my favourite tracks (I loved Tricky), but the lyrics seemed too contradictory to me to be meaningful. I still had not experienced much hedonism, so as simple as the song’s thought is, it just wouldn’t settle into a cohesive, recognizable whole for me. Now that I have had some experience of the world she sings about, they are horrifically meaningful. Now I know about pleasure magnified to the point where it becomes obsessive and claustrophobic.
When I used to drop e and dance, I would occasionally marvel at the conditions I was dancing in: there were blinding, nauseating strobes, music so loud it made my ears ring for three days afterward, heat so intense it evaporated everyone’s sweat in a fog of perspiration (the sweat then condensed on the ceiling and fell in disgusting fat drops on your head). It was literally torture conditions, and yet people willingly paid enormous amounts of money for the privilege. It was only pleasurable as long as you accepted that it was pleasurable – as long you believed that the super-stimulation was supposed to be pleasurable and was not, instead, painful.
Thus, when I said the music of “Enjoy” was a sinus headache, I meant that it was entirely appropriate for the song. “Enjoy” is about throwing yourself into over-stimulation and over-enjoyment even when your rational brain is expressing reservations and desiring simplicity. It seems reasonable that it should be married to a track of bristling horns and off-kilter organs and what sounds like noisemakers. In other words, the song is not annoying (as it is for me some days) only if you believe that the grating, over-the-top music has some pleasurable meaning for you. Although I can’t say I like “Enjoy” as much as I did when I first heard Post, I can argue that I appreciate it more now.
Medulla is probably my favourite Bjork album after Homogenic – I know, weird – but I can see why it drives many people around the bend. Most of her previous albums had ten or eleven tracks, and Medulla, with its fourteen tracks, definitely feels about two or three tracks too long. “Midvikudags” is one of these extra tracks (I’m not even going to try to do the “correct” lettering). There’s nothing irritating about it – it’s a pleasant bit of a vocal warm-up on Bjork’s part, and the harmonies between the layered Bjork vocals are nice, as you would expect Bjork harmonizing with herself should be. But it’s definitely a fragment of a better idea, and a less indulgent Bjork would have relegated this pretty, harmless warmth to a B-side. I do think, though, that her reluctance to let it go indicates how much of Bjork’s heart – aren’t I punny! – is in Medulla, and that this song, as ridiculously forgettable as it is, is a clearer document of her person than anything off of her first two albums.