Who Is It
“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.
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