Review: Bjork – Voltaic (Nonesuch)

Bjork’s new album, Voltaic, a live CD/DVD combo, is sonically and visually spectacular. I know her last record, Volta, wasn’t in many people’s top-ten lists, but give those songs, as well as her entire catalogue, a fresh listen in this live setting. Read my review below.

Watching the DVD portion of Bjork’s new live album, Voltaic, it’s fun to imagine her aging into a bizarro-world version of Etta James. As a pop singer, Bjork arguably matches James’ tunefulness and iconography, and the two women are both masters of a unique version of show-woman-ship. But age takes its toll. At a live appearance at the Hollywood Bowl last year, James was randy, possibly drunk, and though she remained seated, exuberant in her performance for one so, shall we say, seasoned. Her singing was also as close as possible to pitch perfect. On Voltaic, Bjork, of course, matches James’ mellifluousness, but she injects her show with energy and color – literally, from the stage lighting to the vibrant bird costumes to her manic dancing – unmatched in today’s pop performances. Bjork is only in her early forties, after all, while James is in her seventies. Still, one can imagine Bjork continuing on for another 40 years to become the elder stateswoman of abstract electronic pop music, giving her live show everything until all she can do is sit on a chair, possibly drunk, and entertain.

Bjork’s live ensemble recreates songs from throughout her entire catalogue with creativity and rigor. From newer, dancier numbers like “Wanderlust” and “Declare Independence” to the orchestral majesty of “Joga” to classics like “Army of Me,” Bjork and her merry band of drums, horns, backup singers, and electronic musicians manage to bring an almost improvisational feeling while still nearly matching the albums note-for-note. Synthetic and organic are matched effortlessly, as programmed beats and electronic creations one may have never seen used on stage before blend seamlessly with voice, percussion, and brass.

One can purchase Voltaic in a variety of forms – audio CD only, CD and DVD, or several CDs and DVDs along with some vinyl. I would recommend at least getting a version with one DVD since the live footage is so excitingly shot. This is also another chance for the Volta naysayers to give Bjork’s most recent album another shot. Perhaps hearing some of these songs rendered live will change opinions, perhaps not. But the overall quality of Voltaic’s sound is a prime example of how a live album should be produced, reason enough to listen to this album. Here’s looking forward to many more years of Bjork.

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