Low Voltage
Bjork's New One is a Muddled Mess

I’m going to try to keep it short this week. I’m sniffling and sneezing every few seconds, and my head is pounding, and I really just want to drift into unconsciousness. Let’s see how long I can stay awake.

I’ve gone on and on about what a great year for music 2007 has been, but looking back on it, there have been just as many high-profile disappointments as left-field successes. I lambasted Wilco two weeks ago, and even though the record is growing on me a bit, Sky Blue Sky still sounds like a joke that fell flat to me. Marillion’s Somewhere Else takes the crown for most crushing disappointment so far this year – I live and breathe that band, and even after 30 or so listens, this album still isn’t bringing the magic.

Opening salvos from two upcoming albums haven’t exactly whetted my appetite, either. Take the first single from the reborn Crowded House’s new album, Time on Earth. It’s called “Don’t Stop Now,” and you can hear it here. It is, perhaps, the lamest song I have ever heard from the pen of Neil Finn – boring, uninspired, thin, completely forgettable. Considering how incredible the first four Crowded House albums are, the thought of this new one sullying the band’s good name just makes me sad.

Ryan Adams re-emerges on June 26 with Easy Tiger, an album that’s generating some of the best pre-release buzz of the man’s career. But listening to the single, “Two,” you have to wonder where the accolades are coming from. (Here, check it out.) He welcomed Sheryl Crow up to the mic for backing vocals, and turned out a safe, lazy piece of pop nothing. Adams put out three albums in 2005, and none of them contained a single song as boring as “Two.”

And then there’s Bjork.

I’ve been a fan of the bizarre Icelandic pixie for a long time, although we didn’t exactly meet on good terms. My junior year of high school, my best friend Mike bought for me a random selection of cassette tapes from the local store. He’d never heard any of the artists he selected – he went solely on the cleverness of the band’s name, and the coolness of their cover art. I barely remember most of them, but I do recall that one of them was Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week, the second album by the Sugarcubes.

And I hated it. So I avoided Bjork’s solo career for years, convinced that nothing good could come from the Sugarcubes. (For the record, I still don’t like Here Today – it’s too silly, too reggae-inflected, and too formless.) So I missed her dazzling Debut, and her even-better follow-up, Post. Thankfully, I jumped aboard with 1997’s Homogenic – I was intrigued by a pre-release description that included the coined phrase “technorchestral” – and discovered I’d been turning a deaf ear to one of the most engaging and innovative artists of our time.

I’ll brook no dissent on that one. I can understand not warming up to Bjork’s full-throated, heavily-accented voice, and I get that her work isn’t for everyone, but to my mind, very few artists have struck out in as many new directions and crafted as many new sounds as Bjork has. The argument starts with the “technorchestral” overtones of Homogenic – organic strings meeting brittle, crunching electronic beats, with melodies galore – and it ends with 2004’s Medulla, a captivating record made up largely of human voices, and little else.

A new Bjork album is an event, especially since she’s one of the very few artists that can still surprise me. I have no idea what she’s going to try next, and that kind of unpredictability is thrilling. Of course, an experimental streak like that is bound to lead to the occasional misfire, and that’s what she’s delivered, sadly, with Volta, her new album.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Volta pissed me off before I even pressed play. This CD comes in one of the most irritating packages I’ve seen in a while. The red digipak opens in the center, instead of at one end, and the two halves of the front cover are held together by a sticker depicting Bjork dressed up like some kind of Technicolor onion with enormous feet. You have to pry one end of the sticker up to get at the CD, and it’s not easy to do without tearing it.

Once you’re in, good luck getting the booklet out of the awkwardly positioned middle panel. Seriously, good luck. When you give up on that, you can flip the panel and pull the CD out, but then if you want to close the package up again, you have to press the end of that sticker down to keep it from popping open. Pry that up and then re-seal it enough times, and the sticker will lose its stickiness, leaving you with an annoying pop-up book of a package. It’s just poorly designed, and it seems like the intent is to keep you from listening too often.

Which is okay, because Volta is not an album you’re going to want to revisit that often. It is easily the most confused, directionless, meandering thing Bjork has ever released. Her vocals are still gripping, but she’s given herself no melodies to chew on, and precious few fascinating soundscapes to sing over. Most of the album sounds like it was performed by a drunken brass band, recorded in a canyon, and while the moods are sometimes interesting, the songs hardly ever are.

The proceedings actually begin well. “Earth Intruders,” a collaboration with Timbaland, is one of Bjork’s sprightliest singles, all beats and synth bass and the catchiest “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!” you’re likely to hear. “Wanderlust” is pretty good, too – the brass band makes its entrance, but there’s a thudding beat and an actual chorus to carry the day.

Alas, things go downhill quickly. “The Dull Flame of Desire,” one of two duets with Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), is an endless bore, a repetitive intertwining of voices that goes nowhere for seven minutes. “Innocence,” another Timbaland creation, is just not up to par with “Earth Intruders,” and once it’s done, all sense of fun just drains out of the rest of the record. Just about everything else here is a droning meander, whether accompanied by plunking stringed instruments or muted brass.

Are there moments of joy along the way? Sure. Bjork has never made a lousy album, and even this slipshod effort doesn’t fully obscure her genius. “Pneumonia” is one of those brassy excursions, but it contains probably her best vocal in many years – she’s just breathtaking on this song. “Hope,” the final Timbaland monster, mixes in some interesting sounds, even if the song goes nowhere. And “Declare Independence” is an embarrassing, noisy disaster, shrill and distorted beyond all reason, but it does keep you listening, like the aural equivalent of a five-car pileup.

But overall, Volta just isn’t up to par. Bjork has always been good at developing a theme for her albums, leading you sonically from one end to the other, but this one doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, or what mood it wants to set. It’s saddled with brass interludes that resemble foghorns in the night, and it never takes flight – it’s missing that one amazing song that could make up for an album of failed experiments.

One thing you do have to say for it, though – like all of her albums, Volta sounds like no one but Bjork. Most of these tracks are unfortunate missteps, but at least they’re courageous missteps. There’s nothing formulaic or shopworn about Volta, and it’s unmistakably Bjork, even though she’s never sounded like this before, and hopefully never will again. You have to admire her willingness to chart new courses, even if they sometimes end up with her boat dashed on the rocks.

That said, I don’t see myself reaching for this album too often. It’s already on the ever-growing pile of disappointments from 2007, along with Fountains of Wayne, Ted Leo, and a host of others. Thankfully, the good stuff this year has been amazingly good, and though I wish Volta had been better, it doesn’t bring the batting average down too much. And you can’t keep a restless artist like Bjork down – she’ll bounce back next time, with a record that undoubtedly will sound nothing like Volta, and nothing like anything else on the shelves.

Next week, we get new ones from Paul McCartney, Dream Theater, Shellac, Pelican, Chris Cornell and Marilyn Manson. We also get something called Ziltoid the Omniscient, from the mind of Devin Townsend. Has he lost it completely? We’ll know in a few days.

See you in line Tuesday morning.