Most of the world knows Bjork as the unusual Icelandic girl who wore an anatomically correct swan dress to the Oscars a few years ago. It was an intensely unsettling look and so is the image on the cover of Bjork's new album, "Medulla," where her hair is woven into a slick mask that ropes around her eyes and the letters of the album's title have been molded into black jewels that drip onto her ghostly chest. Truth be told, anyone who feels dazed and confused by her fashion sense is probably better off without Bjork's music.
You have no idea how exotic this bird is.
Bjork began her career as lead vocalist in the avant-pop Icelandic sextet the Sugarcubes, carved an early solo niche as an eccentric dance-floor pixie, and stunned everyone brave enough to make it through 1997's "Homogenic" -- a symphony of chilled strings, stuttering beats, and tremendous depth that defied every law regarding the separation of beauty and chaos. Next came the soundtrack to Lars Von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark" (Bjork was named best actress at Cannes for her starring role in the film): "Selmasongs" was a surreal suite of Technicolor reveries set to clanking machines, followed by 2001's "Vespertine," a twinkling, celestial collection that was no less innovative for its delicacy.
Now we have "Medulla," in stores today, and it will surprise no one to learn that on her seventh album Bjork once again rearranged the rules of sound to suit her bottomless musical whimsy. The songs on "Medulla" are made mostly of voices. Some of them come out sounding like a voice: the short, prayer-like "Show Me Forgiveness," for instance, is a simple, stately a cappella tune. Others push gently but firmly at the conventional form: on "Oceana," which Bjork was commissioned to compose and perform at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics, vocal samples are programmed into a magical aquatic soundscape. And the deep harmonic convergence on "Submarine" sounds very much like Bobby McFerrin in the wake of an alien abduction.
Most of the album, however, bridges a generally impenetrable aesthetic maw between the earthly roots of the raw human voice and the cutting edge of sonic experimentation. "Medulla" (Latin for marrow) is accessible and extreme and utterly unclassifiable, an end to which Bjork has enlisted the help of a typically perverse collection of collaborators -- among them the Icelandic Choir, Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq, English art-rocker Robert Wyatt, the Roots' MC Rahzel, former Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, and longtime knob twiddlers Mark Bell and Mark "Spike" Stent.
An occasional keyboard, synthesized bass, and spare, mechanized beats give shape to voices that materialize in angelic clusters, hard buzzing nuggets, dissonant layers, and ecclesiastic swells. Bjork herself is fearless as ever, cooing and rasping and grunting and trilling, sprinkling words like strangely colored ornaments one minute and boring straight and clear into a delirious groove the next.
Paradox and juxtaposition are Bjork's comfort zones, as natural to her as verse and chorus are to most of her peers. In "Desired Constellation" she imagines throwing a palm full of stars on the table like dice, "repeatedly, until the desired constellation appears." It's the rare artist -- the rare person -- who trusts in chance, and intuition, and the transformational possibilities of setting off down a dark path.
For all the meticulous computer manipulations and pristine studio craft she brings to this album and all the others, Bjork begins with her sublimely unfettered imagination. That's the only place where she could possibly embrace the magnitude of ugliness and loveliness she fuses in "Ancestors." It's a place where hooks are supplied by a human trombone. And it's where the impenetrable meditations of a septuagenarian Icelandic composer ("Vokuro") go toe-to-toe with a chattering pop anthem (Bjork's "Who Is It") and come out dancing.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.