It’s never been quite clear whether Björk’s music props up her visual diversions or vice versa. Early on, it seemed like the records mattered most: she co-fronted a really solid pop band, the Sugarcubes, then put out a handful of equally solid dance tracks on her first solo records. And despite the fact that every dreamy, high-pitched female singer was always compared to her, Björk’s voice was unmistakable, and it’s still her biggest asset.
Then again, on the cover of Debut she was only wearing a sweater. Her extravagant costumes and quasi-surrealist videos gradually jacked up the weirdness factor over the course of her late-90s albums until she became the poster girl for pretentious art-pop. Films followed: first, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, then partner Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, which ends (spoiler alert, sort of) with the two cutting off each other’s limbs and turning into whales. Through it all she was making music, but to call her anything less than a conceptual multimedia artist would be shortsighted.
Yet up until Volta, that music had always been her strongest outlet. Barring a handful of people who only knew her from wearing a swan to the Oscars or flipping out at a journalist in an online video, most of Björk’s fans knew her less as a walking enigma and more as a pop star. Even when the concepts got lofty, like on 2004’s strictly a capella Medulla, she would pull off something workable. Medulla sometimes drags in slow choral experiments, but it’s also got a few of her best songs: ‘Who Is It’ and ‘Triumph of a Heart’ stick to the formula, but they work it to perfection — just like good conceptual art should.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Volta. There’s no singular through-line or formula, but it still feels like whatever the intended effect, it’s overshadowed by factors outside the music. Volta’s credits sound more appealing than the songs: Timbaland co-produces three tracks, Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons fame) duets on two, and others feature Lightning Bolt drummer Brian Chippendale, Congolese percussion troupe Konono N°1, and a ten-piece Icelandic brass section. Also present are Björk’s tech-nerd producers, who use all kinds of three-dimensional samplers and advanced sonic gadgets that manipulate sounds in ways most listeners probably can’t even hear.
Despite all the boosts to the rhythm section, Volta might be her least percussive effort yet. The Timbaland tracks are expectedly heavy and upbeat, while the rest tread either drumlessly or with sporadic, downtempo beats that dance loosely around swells of vocals. She’s been leaning in this more fluid direction with every album, especially with the pair of scores for her films, yet this one feels especially inaccessible. It’s as if she’s joining her avant-garde stage persona in a way she hadn’t before: while she could once sound totally unique while still singing poignant, relatable love songs, she’s now abandoned real subject matter in favor of science fiction.
In other words, she’s done what never seemed conceivable: she’s assembled a predictable album. On the one hand, it’s fitting that she’s as peculiar on record as she is in every other medium, but on the other, there was something grounding about her older albums that’s missing on this one. Volta is the requisite Björk album for those who see her as the princess of the avant-garde: a piece of music to hold up her general aura as opposed to a work that stands on its own.