The last two Björk albums conditioned me to appreciate her adventurousness while not exactly liking the results.
I understood the acclaim that greeted Vespertine upon its release, but that album didn’t even seep into my subconscious. Medulla started out as a terrific departure, but repeated listening revealed thin work. It would have been more effective if she really did go completely a capella.
With that history, I approached Volta with cautious optimism. It wasn’t long before I realized I actually enjoyed the album.
Volta marks a return of the grimy, dirty beats that informed portions of Post and pretty much all of Homogenic. If anything, Volta could be considered a direct descendant of Homogenic, with an Icelandic horn ensemble taking the place of the heavy strings.
"Declare Independence" possesses the same manic darkness of "Pluto", and both tracks are the big climax before the tender conclusion. "Innocense" has the same stuttering pace — and similar stacatto beats — as "5 Years", while "Pneumonia" serves as the album’s "Unravel".
Björk’s sense of instrumentation is as cosmopolitan as ever, mixing African and Asian instruments, pitting horns against drum machines. In her hands, these global gestures don’t come across as imperliazed ethnic music.
Rather she bends these timbres to the whims of her own strange musical vocabulary. The Chinese zither on "I See Who You Are" comes across as more alien than Eastern. A horn ensembles is an unlikely foundation for pop music, but Björk pulls it off on four of the album’s tracks. The kora on "Hope" could as easily have been a harpsichord.
Anthony Hegerty of Anthony and the Johnsons appears on two tracks, and his husky, trembling timbre is the perfect foil for Björk’s singular delivery. "The Dull Flame of Desire" can sound like it’s full of itself — the lyrics trying to sound far too literary — but Anthony and Björk sound terrific together. He doesn’t show up till toward the end of "My Juvenile", and it’s an effective entrance.
Björk’s music may seem eccentric on the surface, but her best moments marry a distinct melodic sense with hard beats and a kitchen-sink work ethic. Her recent albums lost a bit of that sense, but with Volta, she’s got it back.