Review Summary: Contemporary classical in its purest form, Björk shows her abilities to convey her emotional landscapes in a beautifully abstract way.
We've known Björk from her poppy Debut
, redefining the nineties in music. We've seen her expressionistically mixing distorted beats on the classic Homogenic
and witnessed a more inward-looking and sensual style of hers on 2001 laptop-art Vespertine
. Then she started to let her hair down and return to earth in an accessible, vocal record filled with some of the most rampant experimentalism we've seen in pop music, 2004's Medúlla
. And while this album stands perfectly in line with Björk's development up to this point, reviewers and Björk fans alike have been alienated by it, making it her least successful album to date.
her least succesful album to date if you view it as a pop record, which it isn't. The Music from Drawing Restraint 9
is a piece of contemporary classical composition matching with its source material, Matthew Barney's beautifully shot exploration of Japanese maritime culture. Both Barney and Björk, partners in art as well as in life, have never eschewed the expressionist, the sexual and both also are prone to pop culture (although Björk is defininately more accepted in pop culture than Barney is).
Björk's composition here is not a matter of writing any catchy songs, coming up with her pagan, intergallactic poetry to describe mundane feelings or working with expressive beats. It works on a deeper level which has been present in her work ever since Post
. It works on the level of, say, Saariaho or Ligeti: craft is on the surface here, and once you acknowledge the craft and look beyond its superficial complexity, there is a richness to be found as big, and maybe even bigger, than on Björk's poppier work. And this record proves something even more stunning: Björk, as most great composers, has a constant line flowing throughout her work. Whether she sings or doesn't sing, whether she writes a musical or an experimental piece, it's all undeniably hers.
Starting off with probably the only track on here you could call a song is a Vespertine-like celesta and harp arrangement on the track 'Gratitude', a blissful parlando done by Will Oldham reciting a letter from a Japanese fisherman to General McArthur. It uses an oriental tonal language that we will come to know on this album, with Japanese modes being used to create a drifting and serene tonal environment. The bell-filled melody and harpsichord ostinato of the third track, 'Ambergris March', explore this world even further.
Vocal sound art pieces such as 'Pearl' (with the throat singing of Tagaq and the plaintive shō playing of Mayumi Miyata, who has previously worked with the likes of John Cage) and 'Bath' (Björk layering her vocals in a way reminischent of 'Miðvikúdags' from Medúlla
or 'Dark Matter' from Biophilia
on top of a quarter-tone piano by Akira Rabelais) sound both enchanting and very melancholy. They're filled with the sense of wonder we've come to know from Björk, but more subdued due to the absence of lyrical expression. The composition on both is balanced and beautifully structured.
Then comes a winning triptych of brass-and-wind pieces. The first of those is the ominous 'Hunter Vessel', with a meticulous brass arrangement of dissonant chords pounding harder and faster each time. They become more threatening each time around until they reach a catharic, Andriessenesque oboe trio, pinchingly loud and full of heavy emotion which fades away. The second is 'Shimenawa', which once again has a plaintive shō progression and is the yang to 'Hunter Vessel''s ying. The two are then mixed together in a brass arrangement in 'Vessel Shimenawa' which sums up this episode beautifully.
The track 'Storm' is a techno-heavy piece of experimental electronic music which Björk, along with Leila, had performed on her 'Greatest Hits' tour. Now embellished with trippy storm sounds, multi-layered vocals, distortion and expressionistic bass drones, it's one of the highlights of Drawing Restraint 9, as is the next track, 'Holographic Entrypoint' (a Nogaku piece improvised on a poem by Matthew Barney) which provides catharsis in a sparse arrangement of multi-layered Japanese sentences and traditional theatrical percussion. It lasts for 10 minutes, and it works best when reading the English translation next to it. The only track not composed by Björk on the album, it's transporting and hypnotic.
'Cetacea' literally clears up the skies again with a beautiful cyclic lyric ('from the moment of commitment/nature conspires to help you') sung by Björk over a rhythmless, echoing bell pattern. Of all the pieces present on this soundtrack it's the least likely to be able to function on its own, but after the loud and desperate outbursts of 'Storm' and '[...] Entrypoint' it functions as a cleansing, a rinsed and controlled presence of Björk's song-voice.
'Antarctic Return' is a shō solo showcase using some advanced instrumental techniques (flutter tounging, inhaling and constantly repeated clusters) which is balanced, beautiful and drifting off into a dream. Drifting back, perhaps, to a polar and colder atmosphere, as it title suggests. Miyata gives a controlled performance here, filled with lightness and sparkle.
In short. We shouldn't be viewing Drawing Restraint 9
as a pop record: it's a suite of new music, contemporary classical which shows that Björk is capable of writing music as much as she is of singing it. Her arrangements are impeccable, her vocal work is daring and she shows to have a natural musical sense of balance and melody. Don't listen this to look for Björk the songstress, listen to this to be transported to a different universe, to meditate and think and be plain emotional. Beyond the avant-garde surface, it may well be one of Björk's absolute best, on par with Homogenic