Danceable and upbeat, with interludes that collage tracks with the sounds of ships mooring and setting sail, a foghorn’s call and response, sea birds, rain, and a train, Volta, the latest chapter in Björk's shape-shifting career, is another departure for the artist.
“It was really different from how I usually work,” Björk says of her self-produced sixth record. “With Homogenic, Vespertine, and Medulla, if there was a starting point, it was rhythms… but with this one, it was different because I knew more emotionally what I wanted. And because I'd done two or three projects in a row that were quite serious, maybe I just needed to get that out of my system or something. So all I wanted to do for this album was just to have fun and do something that was full-bodied and really up.”
It differs notably from its 2004 predecessor, Medúlla, which was constructed entirely of human voices. “I just wanted to get rhythmic again,” Björk said. “Medulla was my way of pulling out of that, refusing to be categorized as 'Oh what rhythm is she going to do next?'”
Interestingly, Volta’s beats came last. “I actually did the whole album, and it wasn't until the last two or three months where the only jigsaw that hadn't been solved was the rhythms,” she said. “We had done a lot of experiments with rhythms but I just threw them all away because it was like every time we did something really clever with drum programming beats, it was just too pretentious for this album, it just didn't stick. For me it was maybe a little bit nostalgic going back to 1992, where you had really simple 808 and 909 really lo-fi drum machines, not doing anything fancy but really basic… I had recorded all the brass, I'd recorded everything else, and everything was actually starting to mix ... And I said, what I need is an acoustic drummer, and who sort of has that almost pagan, trance-like wildness.”
She found this “wildness” embodied by two of underground noise and jazz’s most vaulted percussionists, Sonic Youth collaborator Chris Corsano (Cold Bleak Heat, Sunburned Hand of the Man, and now Björk's touring band) and Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale. Björk’s work has always included unexpected collaborations— 1994’s Post included Tricky and Graham Massey of 808 State; in 2001, Vespertine integrated the work of San Francisco-based musique concrète specialists, Matmos and cult filmmaker Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo, Julian Donkey Boy).
“If I had 500 years, I could collaborate with a lot of people,” Björk said. “But I think another side of me is really, really loyal and really precious about collaboration. I don't think you should even go into it unless you think it's the absolute right thing to do, and that you have equal things to give each other. There has to be sort of a creative justice there: It's some sort of law of nature, that it isn't abusive, one way or the other, and I think it's like friendships, you can feel it. I spend 90% of my music making alone, so those times when I do go out and collaborate, I treat it as a very very once in a lifetime precious thing, and you've got to let it go where it wants to go.”
For Volta, she didn’t stop with Corsano and Chippendale: The international cast also includes the African collective Konono N°1(who won a BBC World Music Award in 2006), Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen, and a ten-piece 10-piece all female, all Icelandic brass section. Long term collaborator, musician Mark Bell of LFO fame who co-produces a track and adds various instruments, and then there are also voices, largely those of Björk and Antony (of Antony And The Johnsons).
Her pairing with hip-hop producer Timbaland (Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Gwen Stefani), who co-produced two tracks, is not as unlikely as it might seem. “[Timbaland] sampled my song "Joga" like 11 years ago, and said many times in the press that he really liked my song from 14 years ago called "Venus is a Boy,” she said. “We've met at parties and there has been this mutual admiration thing going on for years. And sort of talk of doing stuff, but it never happened. And after doing two or three serious projects in a row, I was just like, "Okay where's the fun?" And I called him a year ago, and said, "Let's do something."
Outside of Timbaland and a return to her early days, a trip on behalf of UNICEF to Indonesia in January 2005 after the tsunami hit was a major factor in Volta’s increased beat-count. “Just seeing a village of 300,000 people and 180,000 died, and people were still there digging people out and the smell of corpses and bone,” she said. “The tsunami kind of scraped houses away, you could still see the floor, and the people I was with found their mom's favorite dress kind of in the mud and it was just like, outrageous….'Earth Intruders' was the first beat he [Timbaland] put on, and it just all came up. That sort of fantasy that maybe a tsunami of people would just come and hit the White House and scrape it off the ground and do some justice and spread these people all around the planet... Just a wave of people. I mean, the human race, we are a tribe, let's face it, and let's stop all this religious bullshit. I think everybody, or at least a lot of my friends, are just so exhausted with this whole self-importance of religious people. Just drop it. We're all fucking animals, so let's just make some universal tribal beat. We're pagan. Let's just march.”
On a number of tracks (“Pneumonia,” “Hope,” etc), Björk also deals with issues of femininity and feminism, often with a personal bent. "It's not necessarily about me as a woman, but just women," she said. "Kind of that long leap of 10,000 years back, when they [were] in harmony with nature, and just little things like the fact that there are 13 full moons in a year and most women have certain things happening to them 13 times a year, but Christianity wanted to have 12 months, just to try to put that off… It's sort of trying to put out some good vibes for the little princesses out there. There are actually other things than losing a glass slipper.”
Evoking her days as a teenage punk, “Declare Independence” entreats the listener to "start your own currency / make your own stamp / protect your language” and “declare independence… raise your flag." Sometimes these themes of revolution, war, and feminism blend, as in the song “Hope.” “The song was a reaction to this Palestinian woman who got into [a] hospital because she was pregnant, and then [a] bomb exploded, but she didn’t kill anybody except herself. The first news article was kind of angry, how could she do that? Pretend to be pregnant, because she was wearing some sort of a bump, how could she not respect the sacredness of pregnancy, and use it to kill people, how could she do that? And then two days later they found out she actually was pregnant, for real, and then she was somehow forgiven because she sacrificed her child, but then again she didn’t kill anybody else, so there were all these questions like, but if she did kill other people, would that have justified her fetus's death, and it was this kind of morality, double.”
“Sometimes it's good to be totally impulsive,” she adds regarding the track. “I was writing all of these lyrics and not knowing whom I was going to use, and then I ended up with "Hope.” I flew to Mali to meet Toumani Diabate, and I had three lyrics I could use for this one song, and I wanted to decide then and there so I could sing with him, because it's something different when you can sing with them right in the same room, and in the end, just because of the shape of his sentences, I picked this one, it was the last minute in the hotel room… totally jet lagged out of my brains and I ended up picking one lyric, because it just fit, the syllables…”
These sorts of overlaps are everywhere on Volta: “Dull Flame Of Desire,” a ballad duet with Antony is buttressed by Brian Chippendale’s chaotic drumming; "I See Who You Are," a song ostensibly about Björk’s young daughter, uses up-close-and-brittle sounds of Min Xiao-Fen's pipa with a Chris Corsano beat and a 14-part brass arrangement. Of the latter song’s lyrics, Björk said: "It's that feeling when you have them and then three months later they're this big, and it just passes so quickly, and you just realize you haven't got that much time with them… Imagine 2099 you know, when we both become corpses, so we might as well enjoy it now."
These various threads come together with the closing notes of the plaintive final track, “My Juvenile,” what’s the listener to make of Volta? “It's about being exhausted with the self-importance of religion, and thinking, 'okay, wait a minute, maybe we are one tribe, and we're actually part of nature, and trying to suggest some kind of patent for that... but it's still 2007, it's not some hippie shit, go back to your roots, it's all march forward.”