Dull Flame of Desire
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.
Entry filed under: Volta.