Pneumonia

May 23, 2007 at 5:48 pm 8 comments

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.

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Entry filed under: Volta.

Possibly Maybe There’s More To Life Than This

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ian Mathers  |  May 24, 2007 at 1:02 am

    I’m pretty obviously biased, and I don’t really like Volta (Vespertine is the only album of hers I love so far), but Derek Miller’s review at Stylus is pretty freakin’ good:

    http://www.stylusmagazine.com/reviews/bjork/volta.htm

    Reply
  • 2. Matthew  |  May 24, 2007 at 2:14 am

    I hadn’t seen the review, so thanks.

    I still have mixed feelings about Volta. But I agree with Miller’s overall argument that the album isn’t a redo of Post and it’s kinda silly to judge it in that context. I’ll have more enlightening things to say (I hope) about the entire album when I get to specific tracks, though.

    You like Vespertine best? That’s so interesting, because that’s probably my least favourite album. It’s also, however, probably the album I’m most excited about writing about, because of my mixed feelings. You’ll have to tell me if my judgments are very different from yours.

    I’m afraid I have a very limited ability to comment on your blog – I have only a marginal knowledge of Low. My entire knowledge of them is from my ex’s obsession with them. I’ll pop by when you do “Dinosaur Act” or one of the three other songs I know.

    Reply
  • 3. Professor Batty  |  May 24, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    … I find it curious that your first Volta song reviewed is Pneumonia. Perhaps it is that it is, by its simplicity, the purest song on an album of complex, conflicted efforts. I caught Nico Muhly at the IcelandAirwaves last year, he is a huge talent, I think that on this track B really has a simpatico collaborator. It seems that all of B’s albums have “sleepers” on them- songs you’ll hear a dozen or more times, then suddenly- POW! you get it. This might be one of those. I’m a big Vespertine fan as well, I think it really succeeds as a concept, whereas her other ones may have better tunes, but aren’t as unified (not that that’s a bad thing.

    Reply
  • 4. Matthew  |  May 25, 2007 at 12:04 am

    I’m finding it easier to talk about the smaller songs. The bigger songs are much harder to summarize, and Volta is so new, I wanted to start out carefully.

    And I wanted to address the kind of vindictive reviewing that Volta has occasionally received (although it’s doing alright in Metacritic terms – it has a 76 overall score). It’s easy to praise an album by singling out it’s best tracks, and it leaves you open for attack. I wanted to suggest that even Volta‘s least successful track, tuneless at is, is still pretty enjoyable.

    As for your point about “sleepers” – I think I’ll address this point more, especially when I talk about Vespertine.

    Reply
  • 5. Nicholas  |  May 27, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Thanks both for this site (the idea of which I was lazily toying with) and with the most spot-on assessment of Debut I’ve ever read. I really liked its slick hedonism when I first heard it, but it hasn’t aged well (except for Aeroplane, I think) and doesn’t hold a candle to her post-Homogenic stuff.

    And I find that, even though I enjoyed Volta on first listen, it works better for me as a “whole” piece than a collection of songs– a lot of smooth/abrupt shifts between songs (like between Dull Flame of Desire and Innocence) are as thrilling/important as the songs themselves. Possibly the pop-song album is not where Bjork should be at, now–it would be nice to hear an album that’s one 60-minute-long track.

    Reply
  • 6. Pagan Poetry « Hyper-ballads  |  May 29, 2007 at 8:34 pm

    […] too many chiming sounds. But the song has since become one of my favourite Bjork songs – it is, as a commenter suggested, definitely one of her sleeper songs for me – entirely because of the spectacular […]

    Reply
  • 7. derekpiotr  |  October 16, 2009 at 10:34 am

    that was possibly the most moving thing i’ve read all week. to posit that notion is incredibly bold. well done.

    Reply
  • 8. Alex  |  August 2, 2010 at 2:36 am

    Pneumonia is NOT tuneless. It has a beautiful ascending melody line, that gently rises and falls again.The horns are so mournful. I find it to be an almost overwhelmingly emotional song. It’s gorgeous, and the most striking song for me from Volta. Even three years after the album came out.

    Reply

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