Despite an international cachet and otherworldly aura, Bjork has usually created music that looked inward and created the world as a subliminal snow globe—ornately beautiful, acutely observed, but limited. Less than 10 minutes into “Volta,” her sixth full-length album, the snow globe’s glass is broken, its content spilling in every direction. “Lust for comfort suffocates the soul/This relentless restlessness liberates me,” she sings in the aptly titled “Wanderlust,” one of several new tracks that finds Bjork vaulting out of her comfort zone into the territory of the political provocateur. Although Bjork insists “Volta” is not an angry record, merely an extroverted one—she’s never sounded more defiant. On “Declare Independence,” she offers a rousing salvo about the treatment of Danes living in Greenland, but written vaguely enough to galvanize any disenfranchised group. “Declare independence! Don’t let them do that to you! Damn colonists! Ignore their patronizing! Tear off their blindfolds! Open their eyes!” she squeals over an unrelenting industrial beat that sounds like chorus of angry appliances.
What’s the source of Bjork’s newfound fury? “Part of it was just being bored with the self-importance of religion and the conflicts that are happening in the world because of it,” Bjork said in a recent interview with NEWSWEEK. “I’m trying to remind people that before organized religion there was a certainty that we were part of nature, not separate from it.” To help craft her wake-up call, Bjork recruited a multicultural army of collaborators, including Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, American hip-hop producer Timbaland and a female 10-piece brass ensemble from Iceland. Where her earlier albums sounded more uniform, her throng of collaborators helps make “Volta” as broad sonically as it is lyrically. “Maybe I was a bit too secure being in my little home studio and having things my way,” she says of her earlier albums. “I felt that I should go out there and be surprised, shake it and stir it a little bit.”
Long-time fans of Bjork should be surprised as well, particularly by the tracks on which she collaborated with hip-hop’s It Boy, Timbaland. But the move wasn’t part of a plan to stake her claim on hip-hop. “It’s kind of hilarious because there were some rumors circulating online that I was doing a hip-hop album. I mean … come on, right?” she says. “The reason I worked with Timbaland had nothing to do with me wanting to be a part of the hip-hop community. I wanted to work with him as a person, not as a genre.”
Timbaland coproduced three songs, including the lead single “Earth Intruders,” and their union resulted in the most inspired cacophony of Bjork’s career. The Bjork-Timbaland sessions were the culmination of over a decade of admiring each other from afar. “We hadn’t met but we had this distant, mutual admiration, and after a long, long period of time, as different as we are musically, we found this little island called Bjork-Timbaland island where we meet,” Bjork says. “I think it’s because we’re both attracted to sort of tribal sounds and music, because you could say that a lot of Timbaland’s beats are, for the lack of a better word, weird.”
The other hotly anticipated collaborations on the albums are two duets that pair Bjork with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, one of the few current singers whose voice is intriguing enough to accompany hers. If only to demonstrate that there’s room enough in the world for love and war, the Antony duets are simple, elegant declarations of love; “Dull Flame of Desire” has lyrics that sound like they could have been plucked from Song of Solomon (“I love your eyes, my dear/Their splendid sparkling fire/When suddenly you raise them so/To case a swift embracing glance.”)
But of all the enthralling combinations found on “Volta,” the most satisfying one is that which apparently happened inside Bjork, where her inner romantic and rabble-rousing id decided to see what would happen if they worked together. “Peel off the layers until you get to the core,” she sings of her own self-exploration on “Wanderlust.” “Was it something like this I wished for, or will I want more?” Bjork’s fans could hardly ask for anything more.