The Triumph of the Voice | Bjork strips back to just the human voice on her most idiosyncratic release to date.
Coming off the critical acclaim of her past four releases, Bjork thought it was time to create an album using only the human voice. This is not just an acapella project, she would bring in the likes of Tanya Tagaq, Mike Patton, Razel, and Dokaka to create the beats and samples that bring the songs to life.
“The album is about voices, I want to get away from instruments and electronics, which was the world of my last album, Vespertine. I want to see what can be done with the entire emotional range of the human voice — a single voice, a chorus, trained voices, pop voices, folk voices, strange voices. Not just melodies but everything else, every noise that a throat makes.The last album was very introverted, It was avoiding eye contact. This one is a little more earthy, but, you know, not exactly simple.”
She was even thinking of having Beyoncé lead her vocals on this project (who unfortunately couldn't due to scheduling conflicts. Recording of the project began back in 2002 as she began to tease several of the tracks on her Greatest Hits tour in 2003 (“Desired Constellation”, “Where is the Line”, “Show Me Forgiveness”, and “Mouth’s Cradle”). She began writing the album shortly after the birth of her daughter Isadora, and as such, themes of motherhood bleed into the project.
“Pleasure is All Mine” and “Mouth’s Cradle” both pass along the theme of maternity. “Pleasure is All Mine” gives off a proud energy. She is happy to be this maternal/nurturing being at this point in her life, “The pleasure is all mine/ To get to be the generous one/ Is the strongest stance/ The pleasure is all mine/ To finally let go/ And evenly flow”. Sonically, it’s a fantastic way to start off the album. You get a little of everything: choirs, beatbox, and textural vocals and throat singing. It’s a delight. “Mouth’s Cradle” samples Bjork’s vocals to create these abstract beats and blips creatively. It almost sounds like programmed synth tones. Again, she discusses the closeness she feels with her new born daughter, Isadora, “There is yet another one/ That follows me/ Wherever I go/ And supports me…”. The track kind of warps on itself at the end as she begins to reference the then state of affairs of world politics and yearning to find safety and stability, “I need a shelter to build an altar away/From all Osamas and Bushes”.
Sticking to the theme of motherhood, “Vökuró” is Bjork’s interpretation of old Icelandic lullaby. The title, “Vökuró”, translates to “Wake Up Calm” in English. The song translates as the following:
“[Verse 1]: My farm/ My farm and yours/ Sleeps happily at peace/ Falls snow/ Silent at dusk on earth/ My grass/ My grass and yours/ Keeps the earth till spring
[Verse 2]: Nesting spring/ Hid at the hill’s root/ Awake as are we/ Faith in life/ Quiet cold spring/ Eye of the depths/ Into the firmament/ Staring still in the night
[Verse 3]: Far away/ Wakes the great world/ Mad with grim enchantment/ Disquieted/ Fearful of night and day/ Your eyes/ Fearless and serene/ Smile bright at me
[Verse 4]: My hope/ Your blest smile/ Rouses verse from sleep/ The earth’s rests/ Silent in arms of snow/ Lily white/ Closes her blue eyes/ My little girl”
The song’s theme surrounds that of paternal protection as the main character sings to their infant daughter. Sung entirely in Icelandic, the choral voices provide an almost holy feeling. It’s warm, yet dramatic. This is one of my absolute favorites on the album. The hum of the voices against Bjork’s words sends shivers through me in the best way possible.
“Oceania” was brought about by Bjork’s participation at the 2004 Olympics. She wanted to write a unifying song that didn’t tread the same cliches that other songs seem to have always fallen into:
“Basically, the Olympics people asked me to do a kind of ‘Ebony and Ivory’ or ‘We Are the World’ type song. Those are smashing tunes and all that, but I thought, ‘Maybe there’s another angle to this.’[…] I think, because the song is all about how the ocean doesn’t see boundaries between countries and thinks everyone is the same.”
What came from this is an utterly otherworldly masterpiece. The choir rises and falls like bubbles rising from below the depths of the ocean. The way these voices are arranged and distorted shimmer like sunlight from below the waves.
Several songs bring in elements of a more primal tone: “Öll Birtan”, “Ancestors”, and “Miðvikudags”. Both “Öll Birtan” (“All Light”)and “Miðvikudags” (“Wednesday”) are less than 2 minutes in length and have very little in lyrical content.
“Ancestors” is the most abstract and primal of all tracks on the record. Breaking the rule of only voices with only the occasional piano to break the free form voices of Bjork against that of Tanya Tagaq’s chant-like throat singing. It feels tribal, a feeling Bjork was going after:
“‘Ancestors’ was one of the last titles to come. I kept calling it ‘Piano II’, ’cause I did some piano experiments and this was one of them, it was a working title. In the end when I was naming the record Medúlla and tried to work out what was missing, maybe it was the pagan element and the element about this record that is going back to the roots — before time, or civilization, or religion, or patriotism… also me going two thousand years back, in my head, anyway — to some cave where people sit together with long hair, naked, and they sing disco music or something”
It also beautifully highlight’s Tanya’s throat singing abilities. “Öll Birtan” has a playful nature to it, almost like an amorphous tone you’d make up on a walk. “Miðvikudags”has more texture with it as sounds of beats and almost shoe squeaks add texture to rising wave of Bjork’s singing. Again, it feels like a mix unfettered emotion as you just just use sound to express a more exuberant feeling.
“Where is the Line” calls back to “Army of Me” in its matter of fact tone and overall genesis (as Bjork’s brother is the what inspired both tracks). The harsh techno-like punchy beats have been preserved from the early versions displayed during her 2003 tour. This is one track I am sad to see not achieve an official single release. Razel does such a fabulous imitating programmed beats and synths. It feels as oppressive and punchy as one with full instrumentation.
“Who Is It” is one of the earliest written tracks off the album. In my opinion, this is probably the strongest song off the record. The mix of voices and beatboxing craft a wonderfully catchy pop song. The chorus, “Who is it — that never let you down?/ Who is it — that gave you back your crown?”, will stay in your head long after the song is finished. Bjork had originally written the song during the Vespertine sessions, but thought it just wasn’t right for that record:
“This is a song I wrote at the end on Vespertine, but I didn’t put it there because I felt it was from a different family — Vespertine was introvert and shy and not very physical a record, and this was a very physical song that I wrote when I was feeling quite strong again”.
The single/video version of the track re-recorded with the Bústaðakirkja Bell Choir, while retaining Razel’s beatboxing. It’s magical. The bells add this brightness that is both chilly and beautiful (and the video shows off an Alexander McQueen dress which is an instrument in it of itself).
“Desired Constellation” is one of the only tracks that would fool you into thinking it is using programmed synths to create its cosmic atmosphere. This is achieved through sampling Bjork’s vocal from “Hidden Place” (specifically the line “I’m not sure what to do with it”):
“Olivier Alary (Ensemble) had sent me a CD with a few sketches and said, ‘if you ever feel like using those, please do’… so then I sang it to that and it fitted perfect together, it was really incredible! Then when I came back from the tour and discovered that the whole album was gonna be a vocal album, I thought “wait a minute, what about this song here, I really like this song and it should be on the album”. So I started doing choir arrangements for it. I did a really complicated choir arrangement, for like a sixteen piece choir, and recorded it three times doing totally different things, and it was like 50 tracks of voices, but it just wasn’t right, so I kept editing it on and spent like days and weeks editing it, and it never was right... And then he just said, ‘Guess what! I made it out of your own voice!’ So he actually took a voice of mine, saying ‘I’m not sure what to do with it’ from ‘Hidden Place’ and did a song out of that!”
It’s a very emotionally driven track as Bjork mulls over how she can make up someone’s generous deed they have done for her. I’m also very said this never got an official release. It’s a haunting beautiful song (Side note: The choir version that she discussed above can be heard on the “Triumph of the Heart” DVD single as “The Choir Mix”).
“Submarine” contains additional vocals from English musician Robert Wyatt. The hums, breaths, and deeper baritones provide a sort of marine feeling. It appears to be an call and response of asking when will we let out our true deeper emotions as other voices call to action to do it now. “Show Me Forgiveness” is a solely acapella track. Here, Bjork laments about her moment of weakness around her self confidence. This is the earliest track to have been written for the album:
“I wrote the words probably in 1999, back when I was working in Denmark, and wrote the melody much later, and it wasn’t until a lot later that I matched the two together.”
“Sonnets / Unrealities XI” is derived from “it may not always be so; and i say” by e.e. cummings. It beautifully paints the image of a woman telling her lover how she would handle her partner finding love with another woman. The choir works quite well to breathe life into this poem. “Triumph of the Heart” ends off the album is a wild and fun way. Dokaka provides wild beats, sounds, and tones to the track. She uses all these anatomical analogies to show how all these biological features fuel her to give her all, “The triumph of a heart/ That gives all, that gives all”. It’s the most playful track off the record.
This is hands down one of the most unique listens out of her entire catalog. The overall project comes together fantastically. Several very interesting remixes also came out of this project (I highly recommend the gospel inspired take of “Vökuró” on the VV mix”). The albums strengths lie in Bjork’s ambitious work to craft depth and variety in how all vocal based additions come off. There are a few ties in which it feel a little flat with me.“Miðvikudags” and “Öll Birtan” are very playful, but I don’t see myself returning to them much. “Submarine”, although interesting sonically, doesn’t really capture me much on second listen. “Ancestors” is powerful in its primal energy, but I could see it being a bit too abstract for casual listeners. However, I think the bulk of the album well worth a listen. It’s a record that I have grown a stronger love for the more I listen to it. My favorite tracks off the album are:
- “Pleasure is All Mine”
- “Where is the Line”
- “Who Is It”
- “Desired Constellation”
This is such an interesting and delightful way create pop and electronic music using only voices. I say dive in and be ready for an interesting ride.
My overall rating: 7 out of 10.
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