Björk: Volumen / Volumen Plus / Greatest Hits

Björk - Greatest HitsSynopsis: Unique, brilliant and impossibly gifted, Bjork is one of pop music’s most vital artists. Her award-winning videos echo the visionary spirit that inspires her music. “Volumen” collects every video from Bjork’s career, and showcases the work of famed video director’s Spike Jonze, Sophie Muller and Michael Gondry. Songs: Human Behaviour, Venus as a Boy, Play Dead, Big Time Sensuality, Violently Happy, Army of Me, Isabel, It’s Oh So Quiet, Hyperballad, Possibly Maybe, I Miss You, Joga, Bachelorette, Hunter, Alarm Call, All Is Full of Love, Hidden Place, Pagan Poetry, Cocoon, It’s In Our Hands, Nature Is Ancient.

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Björk: Volumen / Volumen Plus / Greatest Hits 9.0

eyelights: Björk. the phenomenal amount of creativity infused in her videos. the delicious textures in her music.
eyesores: the relative inaccessibility of her music.

“I’m simply suggesting, we go to the hidden place”

Björk is a genius. An eccentric, if not mad, genius, but a genius nonetheless. And I love her.

I don’t remember when I first heard of her, but I remember clearly when I first heard her: Back in 1996, I used to work in the audio visual department of my local library. One day, her most recent album, ‘Post’, came through. I recall being taken with its bright, colourful artwork, and deciding to give it a listen. I really dug it, and it firmly put Björk on my radar (it also established that album cover as one of my all-time favourites, and it adorns one of my wall at home).

I then sought out and listened to ‘Debut’ (which is ironically not actually her first album, given that she’d been releasing music since the age of 12), which I also liked, although less so. From that point on, when she released new albums, I always gave them a listen. But I was disappointed with most of them: they simply didn’t feed my hunger for more ‘Post’. One day, though, I picked up the ‘Volumen’ DVD from a pawn shop, after seeing it on their shelf for months on end.

That changed everything.

‘Volumen’ is a 1999 compilation of all of Björk’s videos from ‘Debut’ onward (it doesn’t include any pre-‘Debut’ material), in chronological order. At 14 videos and clocking at a little over 60 minutes, it was the perfect glimpse into the Icelandic prodigy’s creative landscapes. Although she didn’t direct any of her videos, she chose to collaborate with innovative and mind-bending filmmakers – their joint efforts ensuring that her visual stamp was as memorable as her musical one.

I remember being mesmerized by this collection. Although I watch a lot of DVDs, and have seen my fair share of music videos in my time, this was a standout. I didn’t even like all of the videos, nor did I like all of the songs, but, collectively, it made for a unique experience, one that I’d known no match for in the music world.  So I ended up watching it a lot. And the more I watched it the more I appreciated Björk and her music. She grew on me.

Eventually, I began to pick up her DVDs and CDs even if I knew I wouldn’t like what I heard. It didn’t matter: all I knew is that she would serve up something original somewhere along the line. I found ‘Vespertine’ dull. I didn’t understand ‘Selmasongs’. But I adored ‘ ‘Medúlla’, and was blown away by the diversity of ‘Drawing Restraint 9’. So, when I discovered that all of her albums were remastered in surround on DVD format, I just had to pick them up.

I knew that, sonically, these were albums that would stun in high def. And, boy, did they ever – to the extent that I’ve learned to savour even the albums that I was initially disappointed with. Realizing how much sound quality impacted her music, I’ve bought her subsequent albums in the best-sounding formats possible. I’ve even gone crazy and bought out another fan’s collection so that I could explore her music some more. I’m not a die-hard fan, but I’m a fan indeed.

Björk is awesome.

And so it is that, given I’ve been spending this month exploring eccentric musical artistes who have a flair for the theatrical, I thought it appropriate to revisit ‘Volumen’. Say what you will about Björk, but, like her or not, it’s impossible to deny the fact that she is extremely creative and original – there are few other musicians like her out there. As with David Bowie, I don’t like all that Björk does, but she’s always utterly fascinating to me.

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

Björk - Volumen

Volumen

1. Human Behaviour: This observation of human behaviour from an animal’s point of view was the lead off track from ‘Debut’ and it captured critics and the public’s attention immediately. Its superb, upright bass line, terrific vocals, and excellent fuzzy guitar bridge, make for quite the groovy song. It’s an alternative classic (back when “alternative” didn’t mean “rock”).

The video was directed by creative madman Michel Gondry (in what would amount to a long-standing collaboration with Björk – he would direct 6 of these 14 videos). It finds Björk walking through a woodland set, wearing furry arm sleeves. There are also a porcupine crossing a road and a big walking teddy bear. The video is divided between this outdoor action and Björk inside a cabin, singing at a table. Outside, the bear is being chased by a hunter, and it is chasing Björk. She escapes the bear by flying or leaping (can’t tell), but then falls back down to earth. Now she’s miniscule. Then she’s floating in water. Then she’s on the moon, dressed as a ’50s sci-fi film astronaut. Inside, she’s looking at a large light bulb, and a large moth pops up. She flaps away at it with two large utensils, to the beat. Last thing we know, she’s in the bear’s belly, as we pull away to see it looming large on the planet. As Björk herself would sing, “There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic”. But it’s a wicked video, and it’s a great intro to her. It was nominated for and won numerous awards. Personally, I fell for that mischievous look on her face halfway through. 8.0/8.0

2. Venus as a Boy: “Venus as a Boy” is a quirky, playful song, and it really encapsulates the fun, creative side of Björk. The driving rhythm is a clinging sound and it’s enhanced by strings.

The video consists of Björk in a kitchen, a truly northern European, artsy, colourful kitchen, sensuously and playfully preparing eggs for herself. I love the way her hair is in a bunch of button-like clusters. I don’t know if she started it, but she owns it. I also quite like the dots over her eyebrows. Aside from making eggs and singing she also pets an iguana. That’s it. It’s a very simple video, like the song, but it’s fun. 7.5/7.5

3. Play Dead: This is a song that Björk composed with David Arnold (of James Bond fame) for the 1993 film ‘The Young Americans’. It was only intended to be a single from the companion soundtrack, but it was later added to re-releases of ‘Debut’ as a bonus track. Personally, although it doesn’t make a mark like her quirkier stuff does, I think that it has a super sexy groove. I also love its heavy use of lush strings, and am totally adoring of Björk growl.

The video mostly consists of footage from the film, naturally. But it also shows Björk wailing on a blue/gray-lit set that looks like a large attic. She’s wearing a long black skirt and a short, middle-baring, top with her hair down. She’s beautiful. But the film, frankly, looks like middle-of-the-road rubbish. 8.0/7.0

4. Big Time Sensuality (Fluke remix): Frankly, I don’t understand why this song (or at least this version of it) is so popular – it’s merely a simple dance beat with all sorts of electronic sounds thrown in. There’s nothing special about it. But her growls are wicked.

The video is also simplistic: shot in NYC, the black and white clip consists of Björk on the back of flatbed truck going through traffic, while she’s prancing about and dancing. She’s dressed in a long white (?) skirt with her hair in those buttons again. The video was a massive hit, but I can’t fathom why. 6.0/5.0

5. Violently Happy: “Violently Happy” is just a beat and electronic sounds but it has an underlying rolling rhythm that makes it interesting. What makes it stand out for me is the juxtaposition of “violently” and “happy”. It’s such a demented notion. Add to that the lyric “…because I love you” and it makes you wonder. So it piques my curiosity, even though there’s not much to it.

There’s not much to the video either: the set is a light-blue/green box that looks like a rubber room. The video switches to many different occupants of this “room”, who are all acting erratically. Björk is in long white dress, has long hair and scissors. One guy in white is using a trimmer to shave his head. Others have dolls and/or scissors. Björk pulls the stuffing out of a teddy bear. I kind of like the video, even if critics dismissed it. What sticks with me each time I see it is how unusually thin Björk is here  – despite being in white. And yet she’s phenomenally beautiful anyway. 6.0/7.5

6. Army of Me: Honestly, I love the song if only because of the chorus “And if you complain once more, you’ll meet an army of me”. The mental image I get is so powerful, and it’s all the more amusing because it’s Björk singing it, who’s all of 5’4″ and looks even punier. But she’s feisty, and she has that growl, so it’s totally in character. The song itself is again driven by a wicked rhythm. It’s all electronic, and the production is divine!

No one but Michel Gondry could have made this video. Björk is driving a huge, 8-wheeler, tanker truck through a city. She’s wearing a black Chinese uniform and runners. She’s lovely. The truck stalls. She opens up the front hood to find a mouth with rotten teeth in lieu of an engine. Naturally, she goes to the dentist, who is a a gorilla. The dentist sits her in his chair and finds a large diamond in her mouth, which she takes and puts in the engine of her truck. It starts. Then she goes to a museum with an explosive device, puts it next to a sleeping/comatose/dead young man. She runs out and, after the explosion, returns to find her beloved awake again. She hugs him. I know, I know… it makes no sense whatsoever, but it’s super cool, and a visual treat. 7.5/8.0

7. Isobel: Isobel is part of a trilogy that started on ‘Debut’ with “Human Behaviour” and ended on ‘Homogenic’ with “Bachelorette”. It tells the tale of Isobel, as she moves from the forest to the city and back. The vocal harmonies on “Isobel” are very strong here, especially the wordless “nanana” at end. The track is loaded with strings, and is backed by a heavy electro beat.

This is another Gondry video, and it’s less eccentric, more surrealistic than the last ones. It’s black and white and starts with shots of streams. Björk is playing the organ. There are various images of her blended together or with scenery. There are also children, sometimes wearing masks. A city grows from the forest and light bulbs with planes in them grow. At one point, Björk is covered in planes, which sub for butterflies. The clip plays sort of like a ’30s surrealist film, which is pretty cool – even if it doesn’t make sense. 7.5/7.5

8. It’s Oh So Quiet: “It’s Oh So Quiet” is a cover of a 1951 B-side by Betty Hutton – which was itself a cover of a German song. It begins like a French musical ballad, very subdued, only interrupted by Björk’s making shushing sounds. Then it goes into full swing/big band/broadway mode for the chorus. And then back. Honestly, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to it if not for the video’s energy and style – and yet it’s apparently her biggest hit thus far.

The video, which was apparently an homage to ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg‘, starts in a scuzzy bathroom, with Björk washing her face. When she walks out, it’s in slomo, and the music starts. She looks ill, pasty. As she walks through the garage/tire store, the chorus starts, everything gets brighter and people dance. Then we’re back to slomo and slight desaturation. Björk goes on the sidewalk, and the chorus kicks in: people do flips, umbrellas twirl. Then back to normal. There are a large number of dancers in the street, and it ends when she hops onto a crane and we’re taken up into the sky. It’s a pretty cool video. Björk’s performance is hyperbolic, but perfectly in keeping with the genre. The video was nominated for tons of awards. And rightly so. 7.5/8.0

9. Hyperballad: “Hyperballad” was apparently widely acclaimed by critics when it came out in 1996, but was only a moderate hit. Personally, I love the title, as pretentious as it is, but the song doesn’t really live up to it for me: it’s starts slow, very heavy on layers of electronic textures, piano, strings – then the beat kicks in, for, presumably, the hyper part of the ballad.

The video is interesting because it’s minimalistic. Björk is lying in some leaves, with her eyes closed, and the camera sways side to side over her (we only see her from the shoulders up). Electronic effects are superimposed, including a video of her singing. Halfway throughout, there’s a video-game version of her running through transmission towers. When the beat kicks in, the camera sways over Björk faster. It’s not super, but it’s an intriguing clip. 7.5/7.0

10. Possibly Maybe: “Possibly Maybe” is a melancholy song that is very hypnotic. Although the lyrics talk about breakup (which, coincidentally, were inspired by Björk’s breakup with the video’s director), it would make for a great lovemaking soundtrack.

The video is bookended by Björk floating in the sky, angel-like. Then we see her sleeping in a bed, dressed in neon-tinged clothing. This will be the primary set, but there are a number of sets and costumes for Björk here, including a grey bedroom, a foamy bathtub, …etc. There were too many to keep up. At one point she’s eating watermelon in a sensuous, almost erotic way, and also licks some substance (pudding? sugar?) off the floor. It’s a sad and slightly demented video. 7.0/6.5

11. I Miss You: One of her least popular singles, it’s unusual for Björk, given her penchant for atmosphere and electronics: it has a tribal beat, accordion, Cuban horns, it’s all over the place. And it’s very energetic, organic, which was a departure from her recent releases. I like it if only for that.

The video is another matter. Directed by the man behind ‘Ren and Stimpy’, it’s mostly animation, with very little live Björk in it. Here she has auburn hair, which is sort of a strange sight, and yet also makes her look conventional. The video is completely nuts, like the music itself, and is filled with prehistoric characters, a naked man with no genitals, crazy animals, tons of goofy characters. And it’s suggestive, too (especially with respect to Björk, who’s in a bathtub in one sequence and has dancing boobs in another – don’t ask). Yeah… this is f-ing weird.  But appropriately so. 7.0/6.75

12. Jóga: The first single from Björk’s third album, ‘Homogenic’, “Jóga” is an ode to her homeland and to a close friend. It’s a very beautiful track based on cello and violins. And beats. It’s really gorgeous stuff.

The video was shot by Michel Gondry and it’s his least recognizable one: it mostly consists of sweeping shots and close-ups of landscapes in a stilted rhythm. The land eventually separates (all in CGI) and ends with Björk on a mountaintop with a big hole in her chest – which we proceed to explore briefly. Hmm. 8.25/7.0

13. Bachelorette: This is the third part in the “Isobel trilogy”, and is described by Björk as “Isobel goes to the city”. Is was originally meant for a Bernardo Bertolucci motion picture (presumably ‘Stealing Beauty’), but it didn’t work out. It was designed to be epic, and it’s highly reliant on sweeping strings.

I honestly didn’t understand the story in the video until I read the wiki entry for it. I thought that the protagonist found a book, sought out its author, falling in love, then he becomes popular, they become a celebrity couple and have a public break-up. It turns out that the book she found told her story and went to see a publisher, who makes her famous with it. The rest is clearer, with their public break-up and the book unwriting itself, and so forth. It’s an interesting video, even if it’s not entirely clear. Hardly surprising, given that it’s a Gondry clip. I love him, but narrative isn’t always his forte. 7.5/7.5

14. Hunter: “Hunter” is the opening track to ‘Homogenic’, and I always thought it was also its lead single. Evidently, it wasn’t. And a good thing, too: I hate it when the first single is the first song on an album. “Hunter” is a rhythmic electronic track featuring military beats, heavy hum, and hypnotic background vocals. Even Björk’s lead vocals are processed. At one point cello contributes to the military rhythm, while violins and accordion mellow it. Très cool. It’s a very busy track, but it’s amazing.

The video is simplistic but unforgettable: it consists of a headshot of a bald, naked Björk shaking her head about while singing, in front of a white background. A CGI cartoon bear head starts to form in spurts over her own head, as she manically shakes her head. She eventually morphs into the bear and back. Again, there’s not much to it, but it leaves an impression nonetheless. Personally, I would have wanted something more. 8.5/5.5

Honestly, when I sat down to watch the DVD, I was drained. I had been postponing the viewing for a couple of weeks because I was exhausted from work and various projects and couldn’t fathom taking on the wildness of her videos whilst trying to jot down notes for each of them. I decided that I would do a few at a time, chip away at it so that I could meet my (self-imposed) deadline. But you know what? Once I started, I just couldn’t stop: I watched ‘Volumen’ in one sitting!

Björk really is that awesome! And prolific, too!

From 2001 to 2003, Björk produced a series of DVDs (live shows, documentaries, TV appearances, …etc) and decided to release an update of ‘Volumen’. Titled ‘Greatest Hits: Volumen 1993-2003’, it included the content of ‘Volumen’ as well as the videos that had been made since (seven more, plus three in surround audio). For those who already had ‘Volumen’, she released a companion piece called ‘Volumen Plus’, which featured just the seven videos (and the three surround ones).

Björk - Volumen Plus

Volumen Plus

15. Alarm Call: This version of “Alarm Call” is the Radio mix, which has apparently been sped up. It’s an upbeat dance number, featuring fuzzy bass, but it’s nothing innovative. Nice growls though (I can’t say it enough!).

For the video, Björk is on a raft, in the middle of a forest. There’s a crocodile threatening her, but it goes away. Some of the early shots are from the perspective of the croc, and also an insect. That was actually pretty neat. Then she pets a giant snake between her legs. It’s… um… kind of erotic (and likely intended that way). There’s also a bat, a doe, an iguana and piranha. The scenery is really beautiful. At the end, she cocks backwards and light radiates from her, as the raft drifts off screen with her on it. It’s not genius, but it’s fairly memorable. 7.5/8.0

16. All is Full of Love: The version of this song used in the video is the original mix – not the album track, which is a remix. It’s a gorgeous, ambient piece filled with lush strings, heavy electro beats, and clavichord. The vocals are sweet, harmonious.

The clip is by Chris Cunningham, a video artist who made a splash for his videos of Aphex Twin. This one is less “out there”: It shows an android (with Björk’s face on it, naturally) being built. Many of the shots are of machinery, sparks, and moving parts. Another android sings the background vocals, and it ends with the Björk droid deep kissing another droid (presumably the one doing he background vocals), while being built/fixed. It’s predominantly white and black and looks very slick. It won tons of awards, and rightly so – it’s unforgettable visually, but even more so given its juxtaposition with the theme and vibe of the song. 8.0/8.0

17. Hidden Place: This was the first single off of 2001’s ‘Vespertine’. It features muddy beats, then repetitious music like a stuck record, with layers of vocals. It’s also busy with background sounds, skittering about. It’s interesting sonically, and certainly benefits from a good sound system. But it’s no pop single.

The video starts with Björk naked from the shoulders up, long hair wrapped around her face. Then wind starts blowing her hair around gently. The camera goes in for a close-up, and starts moving around her face. As it moves, strange CGI liquids pour from one opening in her face into another. This continues until the end, which shows a close up of her bangs, with light wind blowing in it. It’s interesting. Unusual. 8.25/7.75

18. Pagan Poetry: This is a totally ambient piece, rooted in Asian-sounding keys and electronic textures to create beat. The vocals are multilayered for effect. The best part is the final chorus, when Björk repeats over and over “I love him” with background vocals reinforcing that. It’s lovely, but desperate… and heartbreaking.

The video begins with these distorted images that have extremely erotic motions in them. From time to time it shows the real images behind some of those graphics. It’s Björk, of course, and eventually the video stops with the graphics and focuses on her. She’s topless, covered in stringed pearls, long hair floating in the wind. She’s gorgeous, amazing. I’ve never seen her more beautiful than in this moment. There’s a lot of weaving of pearls and a few shots of body piercing and it ends with a shot of six hoops in a woman’s back with stringed pearls woven between them.

According to all that I’ve read the initial images are personal home videos of Björk that were distorted due to their sexual nature, and that the weaving was Björk actually stringing pearls onto her body, into her skin. It is claimed that the hoops were also in her back. Although she’s eccentric, this seems very much out of character, but this is what’s claimed by her and the director – even though there’s no redness or irritation to the skin (except on the woman’s back). Not sure what to think of that. But I found the video unbelievably overflowing with sexual energy and quite erotic. Despite the piercings. It completely changed the way I perceive Björk or this song. 8.0/8.5

19. Cocoon: If you thought the previous tracks were atmospheric, this one’s even more so: it’s downright minimalistic: it’s just beats and mellotron (?) with vocals and record pops. It’s intriguing, but not particularly riveting. That was the key issue for me with ‘Vespertine’ when I first heard it. I simply was not ready for such a textured, ambient album. There were very few discernible hooks – a far cry from ‘Post’. I’ve reassessed it since, but I’m not surprised that there were only three singles culled from it.

The video starts with a dozen naked white (white, not Caucasian), black-haired women with geisha hairdos. I couldn’t tell if they were all Björk, but she walks off from that set onto a bare set, still bare, with red strings floating out of her nipples and around her. She moves along with them, almost conducting them, or playing with them. They slowly wrap around her legs, then her arms, eventually cocooning her. She floats upward. It’s an unusual sight, but it didn’t do anything for me. 7.0/6.0

20. It’s in Our Hands: This was a song for her ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation, and it shows Björk experimenting further with texture: the song has barely any melody – it all depends on her vocals (which are pretty hooky, all things considered). Some categorize it as Glitch music, but I couldn’t say since it’s a genre I’m unfamiliar with.

For the video, which is shot with a night-vision camera, she’s outside in a garden at night. She’s small compared to all the vegetation and insects, inches tall. She appears to have auburn/red hair (or is that due to the camera?), and it’s tied up. She also goes under water, wanders about a pond. You know, exciting stuff like that. It’s all about the style of the video, really. The one thing I’ll always remember is that her pupils are white in some parts – which looks eerie, despite (perhaps even due to) her smile. 7.0/7.0

21. Nature is Ancient: Originally recorded in 1997 and titled “My Snare”, it was released as a B-side to “Bachelorette. In 2002, Björk released a boxed set called ‘Family Tree’, which featured the same track, but renamed “Nature is Ancient”. There’s not much to it: the tinkling of keys, followed by strange beats and sounds. And Björk’s vocals are distorted. It’s alright. Why it was chosen as the promotional single for the box set is beyond me.

The video is equally simplistic: it consists of microscopic photography – or at least it is meant to look like it or evoke it. Really, it’s just a bunch microcosmic images, woven together. It looks cool, but it lacks a certain something. Björk, for one. 5.0/7.0

I love Björk. I don’t know how one can’t be utterly fascinated with her. As these videos (and their soundtracks) clearly indicate, she is one of the most unique and creative artists of our time. Even at her most self-indulgent, it’s obvious that she’s merely allowing her creative spirit to take hold without reserve. But she also permits other artists to bloom along with her, collaborating with them instead of imposing her terms. Björk’s world must be a uniquely rich environment.

Watching this particular collection, I must say that I was particularly surprised by the erotic quality that pervaded the videos from 1998-2001. Although there were hints of Björk’s more sensual nature in her previous videos, it wasn’t captured nearly as directly as it was during this era. Was she going through a more sexual period of her life? Was it a commercial decision? Was it just a natural progression? I wish I knew. I wish I could sit down with Björk and pick her brain.

And its beautiful, beautiful creative mind.

The ever-prolific Björk has released 14 videos in the 12 years since the release of this DVD. They have not been compiled, but they have been made available on DVD singles and online (and the ‘Medúlla’ videos were collected on DVD). I have no doubt that they’re all equally impressive and/or challenging, and I really hope that they will all be put together one day – ideally on a blu-ray disc, so as to maximize the video and audio quality of each.

Having said this, it’s clear that Björk will continue to be creative until her final breath, and no compilation will likely ever be complete – in fact, they will probably be outdated very soon after production, given that Björk’s inspiration seems to know no bounds. But I would love to get a more complete collection nonetheless, even if it means having to update it on a semi-regular basis. Like her or not, she is an important artistic force – and voice.

Her oeuvre deserves to at least be documented, if not fully savoured.

Post scriptum: 2015 will see Björk’s art featured at the Museum of Modern Art for a special exhibit. Many of her creations have already been displayed there (including her ‘Biophilia’ app, the first interactive musical app), but this will be the first time the MoMA devotes a full slate to her work. I’m sure it won’t be the last time, either.

Dates of viewing: June 16+17, 2014

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