Raise Your Flag | Bjork brings in Timbaland to create one of her most bizarre and yet colorful projects yet.
Coming off her 5th studio record and creating music for then husband Matthew Barney’s art film Drawing Restraint 9, Bjork was looking to producer Timbaland to work with her on her sixth album. Timbaland had previously sampled “Joga” for Missy Elliott’s “Hit Em Wit’ Da Hee” in 1997. The twos mutual respect for each others work helped to bring them together:
“Because I really wanted visceral, physical, strong music. And he is definitely a guy who has headspace for a strong woman — like Missy Elliott. He lets her be who she is. When you go into the studio with him, it’s like, ‘Drop everything and do it in the name of music.’”
What came from this pairing is an odd mix of horns, clavichords, drums, electronics, and the kora. The artwork from the album gives some context to its sound; it’s earthy, tribal at times, and wild. For all its uniqueness, it feels a bit disjointed. Each element is distinct in a way that doesn’t always marry with the next.
You can break the album up in almost three distinct section. “Wanderlust”, “The Dull Flame of Desire”, “Vertebrae by Vertebrae”, and “Pneumonia” all revolve around brass/horn instrumentation. “Wanderlust” is alive with spastic beats that bounce around the nautical brass section. In order to get the words to where she wanted them, Bjork teamed up with long time collaborator Sjon:
“I had written a whole diary of what I wanted the lyric to be but I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Sjon took it and came back with something totally different. And I took his version, edited it, put my own lines in. It’s about that adventurous spirit and reflects where I was at that point in time.”
We’re escaping the overwhelming feeling of her prior urban life. To satiate her yearning to explore something new, she takes to the seas. We’re in search for a challenge as comfort has become too predictable for us, “Lust for comfort/ Suffocates the soul/ Relentless restlessness/ Liberates me (sets me free).” I always love the lyrical picture Bjork and Sjon are able to make (see “Bachelorette” and “Isobel” as examples). This one just feels a bit flat against the more spacial brass and bombastic drum beats. It’s too disjointed for me to ever really listen to fully.
“The Dull Flame of Desire” enlists the help of Anohni (from Antony and the Johnsons) to add guest vocals on the track. The Icelandic brass section sounds absolutely fantastic here. It’s almost a bit astronomical in sound. The song very slowly sizzles as percussion builds towards the end. The lyrics are taken from an English translation of a Russian poem by Fyodor Tyutchev. My favorite thing about the track is brass arrangement. It adds such a depth (I always loved the sound of low brass and this track makes excellent use of it). I also think the volley between Anohni and Bjork works wonderfully as they take on lover roles describing how passion has begun to spark between them. My only compliant is its length. I find the 7 minute run time to be a bit lengthy, however I do always find myself gravitating back to the track regardless of its run time.
“Vertebrae by Vertebrae” samples one of Bjork’s own earlier works (“Hunter Vessel”) from the Drawing Restraint 9 project :
“… I started reading a lot of books sort of about that stuff, and again being slightly influenced the Iraq war, how organized religion is not a very good idea, for me at least. Like with what was happening before this organized religion thing happened, when we were more in touch with the right side of our brain, more intuitive and impulsive. But it sort of became this joke-song, kind of like a b-movie soundtrack to, “the Earth Mother, RISES back from the mud !” Like the earth goddess as a zombie. [laughs] And she’s going to go Vertebrae by Vertebrae, back on her hind legs, the beast is back ! Also taking a little piss on how scared organized religion is of nature, they’re just terrified.”
It’s foreboding horns and marching snares feel like a monster is rising to get you. Much like the above quote describes, a beast is coming up from the depths. Bjork’s here to rise up against the forces against her, “I have been filled with steam for months, for years/ Same old cloud, claustrophobic me/ Let it burst like old train sounds/ Make them leave me nature.” I love the more industrial beats that come in towards the end. It’s a fairly catchy song.
Continuing the rainning sounds from “Vertebrae by Vertebrae”, “Pneumonia” takes on a more melancholic feeling from the French Horns. The song came to fruition after watching Pan’s Labyrinth while recovering from a bout of pneumonia she had contracted:
“There is a physical sadness to wheezing away with that disease… the determination of the little girl in that film [Pan’s Labyrinth]to believe in her imagination, whatever it took, even though no one believed her.”
In her more vulnerable state, Bjork works against her past sorrows. Instead of falling into depression, she challenges herself to find inner strength, “Understand/ So clearly/ To shut yourself up/ Would be the hugest crime of them all/ Hugest crime of them all/ You’re just crying after all.” It’s an extremely simple song, almost reminiscent of “The Anchor Song” with only the horns and ambient rain sounds. I really appreciate the emotion an execution she brings here.
The second section involves more prominent kora instrumentation on “Hope” and clavichord on “My Juvenile”.
“Hope” is yet another Timbland co-written track. Toumani Diabaté’s kora playing is on full display. One of the more striking subject matters on the album, the song revolves around a suicide bomber whose made to look pregnant and the dichotomy of the her horrific actions being while she was or wasn’t actually pregnant when she completed her mission. Personally, I find the execution of song to be a bit clumsy: “What’s the lesser of two evils/ If she kills them or dies in vain?/ Nature has fixed no limits on our hopes/ Oh, what’s the lesser of two evils?/ What’s the lesser of two evils/ If her bump was fake or if it was real?”. I never can connect with the subject matter well. The tracks erratic almost bright tone also clashes with the words. I always find myself skipping this track. “My Juvenile” is a song for her now adult son, Sindri:
“You sort of let go too much when they’re 14, and then suddenly when they’re 16, you behave again like they’re 8… It’s clumsy.”
Again, she enlists Anohni to provide additional vocals. It’s a mother’s worry of releasing her son into the world at the wrong time. If he were to harbor ill feelings, she wants him to know of all the love and hope she has and always will have for him. Anohni is our sort of internal voice of reason here, “But the intentions were pure/ But the intentions were pure.” It’s a very tender sentiment, “I truly say/ You are my biggest love/ I clumsily try to free you from me/ One last embrace/ To tie a sacred ribbon.” I think the choice of using the clavichord was smart as it adds a delicate texture to her words.
The final section is more strictly electronic based tracks: “I See Who You Are”, “Innocence”, and “Declare Independence”.
“I See Who You Are” is a celebration of her young daughter Isadora. She sings about the woman she will become, “And when you get older later/ I will see the same girl/ The same soul/ Lioness, fireheart/ Passionate lover.” She looks even further past this, to when they are both gone. It ends with Bjork coming back to her as an young girl and wanting to cherish these moments while they have them. It’s a heartwarming sentiment. I do quite enjoy the Mark Bell’s bright production on the track along with the pipa from Min Xiao-Fen. It’s definitely a highlight on the project. “Innocence” is a collaborative track between Bjork, Timbaland, and Danja. It’s striking in it’s opening, which sounds like someone getting shot and recoiling in pain. This is mixed in with a sample of Tim Haywood’s “Playroom” from the game Shadow Man. We take on our fears in this track. Bjork’s changing mindset has her admiring her new found caution and bravery, “The thrill of fear/ Thought I’d never admit it/ The thrill of fear/ Now greatly enjoyed with courage.” It’s punchy sound and infectious fervor makes it prime choice for a single. She brings out your inner warrior here.
“Declare Independence” is the most akin to her industrial 1995 hit “Army of Me”. The horns and production by Mark Bell give a very aggressive feeling. She had written the song with a sort of two fold meaning to it:
“‘Declare Independence’ is very confrontational… I seem to have a warped sense of humor that me and my three friends can understand, it’s very local… I wanted the lyric to be a mix of like if you’re saying to your friend, who happens to be going out with a terrible boyfriend, and you say to the girl, ‘Declare independence ! Don’t let them do that to you !’… And on the other hand, you can take that concept completely different. There’s this big thing you hear in the papers always in Iceland, that we were a Danish colony for like 600 years, and we got independence only half a century ago. And there’s still two Danish colonies, which is Farore Islands and Greenland. They’re still trying to get independent, and it’s just not happening… It’s sort of maybe a little bit of an anthem written to Greenland.”
You can definitely hear this defiant tone as she strikes with, “Damn colonists/ Ignore their patronizing/ Tear off their blindfolds/ Open their eyes/ Declare independence”. I love the energy she brings here. It will get you moving, maybe even moshing. This is a solid song that’s executed brilliantly.
“Earth Intruders” is the only odd man out as it is more heavily percussive based. After going over to Indonesia to aid in relief from the 2004 tsunami, Bjork was inspired to write the song from a dream she had during a cross Atlantic flight:
“It just came like a tsunami out of my mouth and lyrically it’s probably the most chaotic song that I’ve ever written, it sort of doesn’t make sense. I tried to edit it afterwards to fix it and make logic out of it, but it’s just like chaos.”
The drum production by Timbaland and Danja and kalimbas provided by Konono N°1 really drive in the tribal feeling. A mix of buzzy synths and bubbling samples really makes you feel like you’re moving quickly through lush jungles. Unlike some of the hopeful lyricism on the album, “Earth Intruders” gives a much more ominous view of what’s coming, “With our feet thumping/ With our feet marching/ Grinding skeptics into the soil/ Shower of goodness/ Coming to end the doubt pouring over/ Shower of goodness coming to end.” It very much feels like a tidal wave of destruction coming for you that you must out run. Like most of her projects, Bjork starts off the album strongly with a good thesis statement on the sonic textures we are to see throughout the record in some ways.
In some ways this album is a sort of sister to 1995’s Post. It has the same collaborative and extroverted energy that she had then. Unlike Post, it experiments much less with genres, choosing to stay within the dance/pop realm only to sprinkle in world music sounds throughout. With all of the album’s unique textures and subject matter, I can’t help but feel it’s a bit disjointed to enjoy fully. Some tracks like “Hope” and “Wanderlust” seem to miss the mark in their execution. My biggest compliant is the length of many tracks, for example as much as I enjoy the atmosphere of “Dull Flame of Desire” I can see how it could be a bit tedious for some listeners. For the songs that miss the mark, the some that truly shine. “Earth Intruders”, “Innocence”, “Declare Independence”, and “I See Who You Are” invite return visits. I admire Bjork’s tenacity and experimentation here, but I can see how it has become one of her more contentious records in her catalog. My favorites off the album:
- “Earth Intruders”
- “I See Who You Are”
- “Dull Flame of Desire”
- “Declare Independence”
My overall rating: 6 out of 10. It’s grown on me with every listen. I recommend giving it a spin and keeping an open mind as you move through the album. Let me know you thoughts as we move towards one of her most ambitious projects, Biophilia, next.
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