Posts filed under ‘Volta’
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.
Imagine, for a moment, that Bjork’s career no longer existed. Her earthy voice, her quirky outfits, her bare feet, her strident bizarreness: all gone. We no longer have anything to complain or argue about (if you were complaining or arguing, that is).
Are you there? Have you imagined it? Okay, now, imagine this:
In early 2007, a song called “Pneumonia” begins to circulate through the Internet. It is essentially an a cappella track with some horns for emotional colouring, but the vocals of the unknown vocalist are stunning. Unlike any other singer of her age, she sings with a professionalism that does not dull her emotional complexity. She sings brightly and with a mixture of fragility and authority that many indie rockers can only secretly envy. She seems generally unclassifiable. For instance, although she’s clearly romantic, she doesn’t fall for any standard romantic tropes: she doesn’t sound self-pitying or mopey or overly impressed with herself. The song itself doesn’t seem to belong to any genre. It could be in the tradition of a lieder, or a lullaby, or a pop song, or it could just be a vocal jazz riff.
It’s a curious little fragment. No one would suggest that it is perfect, or that it is the greatest song of the year, but the song seems to indicate a talent that needs attention. Everyone is delighted and confused by the little song. It sets the critical world buzzing: Who is this person?
It’s perhaps sad, then, that this world doesn’t exist. In our world, “Pneumonia” is only the smallest track on an embarrassingly over-critiqued album – an album that is apparently being punished for not being Debut Part Deux (or Post Part Deux). It’s not a particularly good song – in fact, I would go so far as to say, in the context of Bjork’s discography, it’s probably one of her poorest album tracks – but the song is still worth a few listens.
Listen, for instance, to how it is a melodic play on “Aeroplane” from Debut; listen to how she quotes “Storm” from Drawing Restraint 9 when she sings the last note of “simply surrender to high”; listen to the lyrics, and their refutation of “Human Behaviour” (“You’re just crying after all/To not want them humans around anymore/Get over the sorrow, girl”); listen to the song and imagine it being performed live, and how the tension could match her performances of “Desired Constellation.”
See, it’s all about context.