BBjörk is one of those artists whose work you either love or hate; it's unusual to be indifferent to her. And she's never predictable. I happen to love much of her work, and I think she's a stunning jewel among the interchangeably bland voices that make up the majority of mainstream music. Medulla is an unusual album — even by her standards — as it's almost entirely composed of voices (there is some percussion and a tiny amount of synthesised material). If that has just brought horrible memories of The Flying Pickets into your mind, you needn't worry — it's nothing like that.
Medulla makes you marvel at the sheer range of sounds that the human voice is capable of creating. There are beautifully sweet choral melodies, grunts, growls, pants, breathy sounds, shrieks and hums. 'Vökuró' and 'Oceania' probably come the closest to sounding like conventional pieces. On the former, the Icelandic Choir create an almost spiritual feel, but even the most outlandish songs capture the same feeling, like listening to a Shaman chanting, or just the ordinary magic of listening to someone you love breathing. 'Submarine' (featuring Robert Wyatt) is frankly bonkers, but grows on me more each time I listen to it, with breath sounds and deep drone chanting.
I hadn't really heard 'Oceania' before (I didn't watch the Olympics), and it struck me how sinister it sounds now after the tsunami:
one breath away from mother oceania ... you show me continents you count the centuries hawks and sparrows race in my waters stingrays are floating across the sky little ones - my sons and my daughters your sweat is salty i am why
If I had to pick a favourite track, I think it would be 'Mouth's Cradle', which is underlain by gutteral percussion of gulps, buzzing and weird alien sounds. Over the top, the Icelandic Choir produce a mellifluous bell-like chiming, through which Björk weaves the lyrics and melody. It's quite brilliant, and unlike anything else I've ever heard.
Another brilliant and maddening aspect of this album is the liner notes. At first I thought that most of the pages were blank and black, until I happened to tilt the page to the light just so and noticed that the titles and lyrics are printed in slightly more glossy black on a glossy black page. It felt like being party to a thrilling secret, but at the same time drove me crazy. How would anyone with worse eyesight than me manage to read it?
I suppose the same goes for all the music I rave about, but if you are thinking about getting this album, do have a listen to it first. I don't want anyone complaining to me that they bought it and found that they hated it — I did warn you.