Review Summary: Between an album and a soundtrack. Between 20th-century classical music and 21st-century beats. Between Homogenic and Vespertine. Selmasongs is an enjoyable album which shows Björk at her most sincerely emotional.
A muted brass E-flat is the first thing we hear on Selmasongs
, and it stays underneath the whole of the Overture, providing harmonic backing for two basic chords which are contrapuntally explored with layers of a melody that first climbs, then descends. It sounds hopeful, but it´s a restrained, compressed form of hope. Only briefly the arrangement breaks open into a glourious timpani-and-brass fanfare, only to slip back into the lower-register chords.
is Björk´s soundtrack to Lars von Trier´s deconstructed musical Dancer in the Dark
which Björk stars in as Selma (hence the album´s title). The soundtrack works as a companion piece to the film, its songs integrated into its narrative structure. Some songs actually do work seen apart from the film (although they work better in combination with it, because the emotional strife in the film is reflected in the music), others don´t make much sense without the film.
The second track, the busy industrial ´Cvalda´ is one of those songs. It features Björk describing the noises she hears, and Cathérine Deneuve sings a few notes with her, which disrupts the concentration on the album way too soon. The lyrics are naïve and simple and don´t really make sense without the factory setting of the film. That´s the bad news, as the composition of the track is up to scratch. Small glimmers of Ravelesque harmony in the cut-up arrangement predict the influence of this composer on the album's overall composition. Brass, trickling celesta, harp and dissonant string arrangements actually don't sound out of place juxtaposed with the heavy industrial beat.
What follows are two songs reworked from the film version (which appears to be a good idea). There´s ´I´ve seen it all´, which, instead of a duet with the actor singing it in the film, is sung with Thom Yorke, who at least is a real singer. The song´s arrangement is lush and its Q&A-game works out quite splendidly. Again we are overwhelmed with a whole lot of Ravel, Björk´s trademark parallel fifths providing the basis for more complex harmony and melodic writing and cut-up train sounds functioning as a very trip-hoppy beat.
´Scatterheart´ is now a solo effort instead of a company number and Björk changed the lyrics so the song wouldn´t be so dependent on context. One of the most beautiful sentences on the album is found in the lyric: "I´d love to lead you the way/Just to make it easier on you/You are gonna have to find out for yourself". The ambiguity of this lyric lies at the center of the film and the album: what would be easier, being led or finding it out yourself" The song is gloomy, pensive and emotional and features an incredible arrangement of strings, celeste and organ, ending like an updated version of Nico´s ´Mütterlein´.
'In the Musicals' is more difficult to explain. There's something surreal and psychedelic about the xylophone and electronic noises that float around, embellished by quick show-tune washes of strings and brass that disrupt the diatonic song with slight hints of chromaticism. As much as it's ravishing, it's also very confusing - the beat being variously made of three different objets-rassemblés (drumming on wood, pencils drawing and tapping). It doesn't feel like an organic whole in this version.
'107 steps', the shortest song around, is simply enchanting, and how much Björk manages to make out of simply ´31, 35, 38, 42, 48, 51, 54, 58, 64, 68, 69, 75, 79, 83, 86, 89, 93, 100´ (yup, that´s the whole lyric) is musically beautiful. The orchestral arrangement is lush and bursts out into an aggressive, once again very Ravelesque climax. If you´ve seen the movie, the song is as devastating as anything.
So is ´New World´, which centers around the melody we first heard in the Overture, has a beautiful and well-crafted lyric, a more and more agressive triphop beat and the quality that it might function on its own, as one of Björk's more rewarding songs. If you have seen the movie, the whole emotional weight lies on this song and it has brought tears to my eyes at times.
is an album which is a necessary bridge between the big-beat, extrovert 'Homogenic', and the small and intimate 'Vespertine' that also uses sounds from everyday life to make its beats. The lyrics aren't as elegantly poëtic as most of Björks work, but they function so well in context that it would be a shame to alter all of them. Plus, without any doubt, this album spawns some of the most beautiful harmonies in pop music, plus astounding orchestration (by Vince Mendoza). The best thing about the album, though, is how purely and sincerely emotional it is. It never feels like it's tricking you. It's just conveying, and does so brillantly.