Posts filed under ‘Medulla’
“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.
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.
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.
It’s the shortest track on Medulla (by a second!), and also the only one that is completely a cappella in the traditional sense. Medulla has several bridge songs – songs under a minute that seem more like interludes than finished songs – and “Show Me Forgiveness” fits this pattern.
At the same time, it is one of the most capable (but odd) rejoinders to the charge that Bjork had abandoned pop by the time Medulla came out. The melody she sings is simple, pure and without dissonant notes or irregular rhythms. The melody is also probably one of the most memorable on the album. If the song were longer, and it had a verse-chorus structure, it could easily have been a standard pop song.
It is the lyrics that help push it even further as a stand out track. Lyrically, “Show Me Forgiveness” highlights Bjork’s strange yet liberating stance on self-perception. Since she’s a post-Christian and (up until Volta) a fairly unconscious feminist, she has no interest in asking God or her lover for forgiveness. In the song, she needs forgiveness for having “lost faith” – an irony, I’m sure – in herself.
With these lyrics sung into what sounds like a void, the song becomes a metaphor for the difficulty we all have with reconciling our “interior” with “outside forces.” To be able to forgive yourself, you need to believe in your own worthiness. For a post-Christian, this belief cannot be bestowed by God: it must originate out of nothingness. Confidence in one’s self is as fragile as a voice alone in a void. But that voice, out of necessity, can produce something strong and beautiful.