Björk has a knack for making records that don’t sound like anyone else’s. With each new offering—from 1993’s Debut, an album that roamed freely through a world’s fair expo of multi-culti beats, on through Vespertine, which sealed the Icelandic singer’s zig-zaggy vocal lines in an hermetic chamber of desiccated techno—Björk is the one artist we turn to in these troubled pop times for a measure of adventure and surprise.
Her latest release, Medúlla (Latin for “marrow”), is something else altogether, an album in which virtually everything you hear, aside from some light instrumentation and digital programming, is a voice. Vocal parts—mostly from Björk and the Icelandic Choir, a 55-member ensemble—pile on to create swelling crescendos and impasto textures, and the “human beat-box” beats courtesy of ex-Roots member Rahzel, Japanese singer Dokaka, and U.K. artist Shlomo stutter, belch, and whisper. Even though it’s a triumph of digital bricolage—nothing new in that—Medúlla has the distinct ring of another sui generis project and has been lauded as such.
But there’s a precedent. With all the predictable approbation Medúlla has received, it’s worth noting that Todd Rundgren performed the same “all vocals, all the time” experiment on his album A Cappella in 1985. The mid-’80s were an antediluvian era for recording, yet Rundgren, using time-honored overdub techniques, crude sample machines, and nothing but his voice, created a lush, gorgeous record that rivals Medúlla for its mad-scientist invention and ambition.
The two artists share more common ground than their fans might think. Rundgren, who had already amassed an impressive CV as a songwriter, producer, and solo artist by the time A Cappella was released, is, like Björk, a musician who works on his own terms, a control freak who would rather record it all himself than answer to other musicians. Rundgren also shares with Björk a tendency to create music that turns inward; his electronic experiments sound like chill-out jams for Biosphere dwellers. Check his early Utopia albums or his underrated album Healing, a gorgeous meditation on faith that’s alternately squawky and soothing.
Rundgren favors sturdier song structures than Björk, whose melodies tend to drift and wander. But there are moments when their sensibilities intersect. It’s all those stacked vocals, which are soft and entreating, floating heavenward like a benediction.
On A Cappella, Rundgren manipulates his elements deftly so that voices contract and expand, carom and caress. All those vocals create a kind of aural depth of field; you can almost hear elements shifting from the background to the foreground.
The trick when making an all-vocals album is to avoid making it sound like a gimmick, a science project from a precocious whiz kid. Rundgren handles this with songs that are strong enough to work in other contexts. On the ballad ” Lost Horizon,”a baritone provides the bass line, and an angelic choir of sopranos provides accents that puff out as if from a bellows while Rundgren sings of forsaken love. The end result strikes that same bruised, ominously romantic tone with which Björk’s listeners have become familiar. ” Johnny Jingo” (a song about blind patriotism that’s all too relevant now) fashions a call-and-response structure; his multitracked vocals repeat and double back on themselves like a fractal equation.
Rundgren also has a Björk-like proclivity for eccentric, Eastern-tinged fulminations. ” Miracle in the Bazaar” is a wacked-out sermon, with jagged washes of reverb-soaked vocals, high-pitched chanting, and Rundgren’s strident entreaty to Allah, who will “make his presence known to you!” It’s not unlike Medúlla’s ” Who Is It,”where Björk asks, “[W]ho is it/ that never lets you down?” You can almost picture these two sipping chai lattes and discussing Rumi and Khalil Gibran.
But it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever share a stage together. Where A Cappella favors the four-square pop song, as on the hit-that-never-was ” Something To Fall Back On,”Björk burrows deeper into abstraction on Medúlla. Yet Rundgren’s talent for conceptual conceit is just as impressive. Give Björk props for her audacity, but, at least this time, she didn’t get there first.