October 5, 2000

Let's Get Quirky

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There’s only one way to go about listening to Bjork’s music, and that is to expect the unexpected. Selmasongs, her latest effort (which is also the soundtrack to the film Dancer in the Dark), is a rollercoaster ride through practically all areas of musical innovation. It constantly makes unanticipated shifts and turns, but somehow manages to stay on track.

Selmasongs opens with a theatrical, sweeping orchestral track appropriately entitled “Overture,” which sets a pretense of serious, grandiose music. Yet track two, “Cvalda,” begins with what sounds like sawing and drilling, and Bjork seems to have utterly abandoned her initial foray into seriousness. Indeed, no song’s beginning predicts its end: Bjork usually spans five or six musical genres before she completes a track.

Another factor in Selmasongs’s diversity is its instrumentation. The orchestra alone contributes a plethora of sounds, but Bjork also utilizes less common, unexpected instruments like the xylophone in “In the Musicals” and a slew of other synthesized, electronic, or non-instrumental noises. Bjork’s voice is also quite versatile, and she shapes it to seemingly mimic different instruments: she squeaks, squeals, screams, and suddenly sounds almost operatic.

Neither the voice nor the instrumentals are consistent, and just when a sense of continuity comes though, a sudden change disrupts it. But although Selmasongs seems largely discontinuous at first, by the end of the album, it’s become more streamlined. A sort of chaos predominates, but it’s a carefully constructed and managed chaos, as beautiful and continuous as it is fragmented and unpredictable.

Selmasongs is a practice in juxtapositions: the old with the new, the loud with the quiet, the simple with the complex. What’s more, these juxtapositions are largely paradoxical and surprising. Selmasongs is what you might get if Mozart collaborated with Moby. The album’s orchestral, sweeping overtones make it seem as if it really wants to be taken seriously, but then a nuance of quirkiness, such as the ping of a xylophone or a squeak of Bjork’s tiny voice will interrupt and diminish, if not negate, the serious effect. Unfortunately, the album is very short, providing a meager seven tracks, and by the time the listener has grown comfortable with its chaotic quirkiness, it’s over.

Appreciating Bjork is like appreciating haute couture or other forms of unconventional and experimental art. An experimental artist demands an experimental listener: You just have to kind of sit back and let it speak for itself. Selmasongs fits no category: it’s not good driving music, it’s not good dancing music, it’s not even good movie music, despite being a soundtrack. But Bjork certainly deserves credit for her musical innovation, and Selmasounds is very much a break from the ordinary, if anything.

Archived article by Julia Ramey