Björk falls into a rare category of musical visionary. Her work is undeniably forward thinking and without precedent in its scope, but that very complexity and futurism keep her from being truly influential. Most significant musicians have had to watch their sound aped and mangled by lesser peers who lack their vision. As for Björk, well, it’s just not that simple to copy Björk, and few have even tried. Radiohead and Portishead can certainly count themselves as bands that demonstrate similar somewhat inscrutable orchestral tendencies, but neither band attempts to match her grandeur. In short, if you want to listen to Björk-like music, Björk is pretty much your only option (save for the new Bat For Lashes).
So it was only a matter of time before we started taking Björk’s genius for granted, as though we have her figured out. Her two most recent studio albums (2007’s Volta and 2004’s Medulla) were warmly received, yet not greeted with the usual awe that typically accompanies her releases. Of course, if Volta or Medulla were her debut record, they would no doubt be treated with considerably more reverence.
I precede the review with this Björk love mostly out of guilt because I fear that I am joining the ranks of those taking her for granted, mainly because I find her newly released live album/DVD package, Voltaic, so underwhelming. There are five different permutations of this release with varying amounts of material in each package. The version I received contains a live, in studio album and a live DVD featuring highlights of her shows in Paris and Reykjavik, and while I’m not one to scoff at any Björk release, there’s a certain lack of purpose to the live album that I find a bit mystifying. The recordings and performances are just about flawless, free of any technical flubs. And while that might be a strange complaint, that very flawlessness robs the performances of any humanity. Voltaic is almost alien in its unblemished gleam. Every song, no matter how complicated, is shocking in how exactly it replicates the previous studio recording.
Which begs the question: why make this recording in the first place? Is it merely to exhibit the technical proficiency of Björk’s live band? That’s the only reason I can think of, and it’s certainly not reason enough to justify the purchase.
But what of the live DVD, you’re surely asking. Well, a DVD of a live performance needs no justification, especially if you’ve never seen Björk in concert. Yet, somehow these transcendent songs such as “Joga” or “Where Is The Line” that practically seem like universes unto themselves on record lose a little bit of the mystery when recreated live. Björk is a generous and excitable performer, prone to prancing around the stage like a child, and her band is obviously solely composed of world-class musicians, but these songs are truly launched in the listener’s imaginations. Watching people perform them, competent as they may be, somehow makes it seem so mechanical. To be fair, it’s probably a lot different if you’re in attendance or watching it on an HDTV, and not my boring medium sized Samsung. Plus, it’s always fun watching someone play that crazy Reactable instrument that I doubt I will ever understand.
Of course, there are stray moments here and there that keep Voltaic from being truly expendable. The spare accompaniment for her performance in Reykjavik allows the viewer the rare opportunity to hear Björk’s tremendous voice unencumbered by opulent instrumentation. Certain songs off the largely rhythmically fueled Volta (“Wanderlust,” “Declare Independence”) receive a significant boost in a live setting. On the whole though, Voltaic feels like something small to sate hungry Björk fans while they wait for something significant to consume.