Released ten years ago today, Volta remains an exhilarating assault on the haptic senses – yet it’s strangely been relegated to a footnote in the Icelandic artist’s career
Before Volta, I’d never actually purchased one of Björk’s albums. I’d been a fan of the Icleandic artist’s music for a long time, but until I accidentally stumbled upon the album’s glossily shrinkwrapped, apple red, Nick Knight-lensed package in a New York City Virgin Megastore as teenager ten years ago, I’d not listened to one her albums all the way through. As it turned out, Volta was a good place to begin: more than any other Björk record, listening in full is key to appreciating and understanding its ravaged, terrestrial soundscapes and anthropological musings. The longer you spend with it, the more it reveals its bold, visceral qualities: from the muddy underfoot slaps and crunches of “Earth Intruders” to the chill-inducing, rainy mist of “Pneumonia”, Björk draws you into her unusual, exotic terrarium of sound by tapping into your haptic senses. It’s an album you can touch as much as hear.
Unlike the rhythmic trip hop of earlier releases Debut, Post, and Homogenic, or the artful electronic sheen of cerebral-yet-accessible early 2000s records Vespertine and Medulla, Volta is one of the weirder and more difficult entries into Björk’s discography to digest. It’s a murky concoction of regal horns, warped new wave synths, tribal beats, lilting stringwork, and organic sound bites, offering a strange, sinister juxtaposition of sound: orchestral and sparse, intimate and sweeping, polished and undone. Lyrically, its themes were just as extrospective as its worldly sound, with the artist ruminating on lust, war, and the undeniable, fierce beauty of humanity beneath it all. On “The Dull Flame of Desire”, a slow-building, percussive duet made breathlessly urgent by Björk and Anohni, the singer waxes poetic (quite literally – its lyrics are the English translation of a Russian poem by Fyodor Tyutchev) about the innate gorgeousness of humankind, lovingly admiring the “splendid sparkling fire… like lightning flashing in the sky” of her lover’s eyes. And on “Wanderlust”, she ruminates on the existential search for belonging, as well as a burning desire to return to her natural ‘core’, a familiar thread woven between all of this planet’s inhabitants. “I am leaving this harbour / Giving urban a farewell / Its habitants seem too keen on god… / I have lost my origin,” she laments in her stop-and-go warble, championing the ‘relentless restlessness’ that ultimately ‘liberates’ her.
But the qualities of humanity are not all romantic or hopeful. Björk decries the imperialist violence of man on the brutal electroclash anthem “Declare Independence”, an unabating, politically-charged battle cry against colonialism. The song is a thematic sequel to her more intrinsic “Army of Me”, with the artist shouting, “Start your own currency! Make your own stamp! Protect your language!” over a skittering, industrial beat. (She was subsequently banned from re-entering mainland China after pointedly addressing Tibet during a controversial 2008 performance in Shanghai.) And on Volta’s lead single “Earth Intruders,” she bewails the incessant ‘turmoil’ and ‘carnage’ of Earth’s dominant hominid species over a flurry of chaotic drum loops which rattle like the skeletal bones dug up from the ‘mud graves’ and ‘morbid trenches’ she lyrically excavates. Perhaps tellingly, the track was inspired by a trans-Atlantic flight in which, as she told MTV, she dreamt vividly of a “tsunami of millions and millions of poverty-stricken people” swelling above her plane. It’s a description that matches the frightening, panicked tone of the song.
Prior to its release, though, fans were expecting a very different record. Volta is notable for its collaborations with producers Timbaland and Danja, both of whom were at the peak of their commercial success thanks to their tide-changing work with stars like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. When Björk teased a more “full-bodied, really up” album in an interview with Pitchfork, it was easy for audiences to imagine Volta hovering on the peripheries of the pop and R&B mainstream. In contrast, she created something that brought together both the untethered, wild-and-free spirit of Debut and the elegiac sophistication of Vespertine, but with much earthier, dizzier, brassier, and spookier results.
“The longer you spend with (Volta), the more it reveals its bold, visceral qualities... it’s an album you can touch as much as hear”
The collaboration shouldn’t have seemed so unlikely, though: Björk has always worked with radical innovators, and both Timbaland and Danja were making some of the most radical and innovative music in the charts at the time. Even so, it was hard to imagine that they’d come up with such feral and experimental dance tracks together. “Earth Intruders” and the equally unhinged “Innocence” are some of the weirdest of Björk’s career; meanwhile the Björk/Timbaland co-write “Hope” is a bizarrely sensual ballad about a suicide bomber set to the folksy plucks of a West African kora. In an interview with the New York Times, Björk laughed off the media’s preemptive proclamation that she had “gone hip hop”, and chatting with MTV in 2007, she maintained that she didn’t want to work with the producer due to his relevancy as a “hitmaker,” but rather to explore where they “overlapped” as musicians and artists.
In the years following Volta’s release, Björk would put out two of her most critically acclaimed and fan-lauded works to date – both 2011’s earthly and environmentally-charged Biophilia and 2015’s sweeping, wildly captivating Vulnicura are celestial, transcendent masterpieces. Still, it’s been strange to see the bizarre, genre-denying Volta often unfairly relegated to a mid-career footnote (or worse, forgotten about entirely) as it undoubtedly paved the way for the ideas she’d explore on subsequent albums. Where Volta dared to tread barefoot, it marked a path for the artist’s future experimentation with unfiltered, conceptual, ambient art pop – her inimitable signature now – with the remnants of songs like “Vertebrae By Vertebrae” and “My Juvenile” echoing within the respective aural chambers of her most recent releases.
Unfortunately, some critics weren’t as enthralled with Volta as I was. Pitchfork described the album as “limp and strangely empty, almost unfinished,” while Rolling Stone argued that it was “not as gripping or coherent as her best stuff.” And sure, Björk’s sixth solo studio album doesn’t exactly make for a sharp listening experience, and you’re probably not going to belt along to any of its tracks at karaoke (though, if you are, kudos to that). Instead, it’s messy, fallible and imperfect – but in all the ways that thought-provoking, multiplex art can be. The artist is human after all, and Volta is nothing if not an album about the beautiful dysfunction of humanity.
Speaking about the album’s title in 2007, Björk said that she is “always looking for words that have some sort of energy” and found that ‘volta’ was “both the name of a scientist in Italy who invented the battery, and also a river in Africa which had been built by men, and a lagoon built by men called Lake Volta. There is also a mediaeval dance with carries that name, a very funny dance which is very hard to learn. Thus, I got a lot of things in one word: a dance, a river in Africa which doesn't work anymore, and the battery. So okay – this fits.”
It does fit, but I prefer an alternative definition. In a sonnet, the volta or ‘shift’ marks the great reveal of a work of poetry, where a poet suddenly unearths a change of thought or great insight. In the grand timeline of the multifaceted artist’s music-making career, Volta marks a poignant turning point. It lingers with you like an old poem, haunting you and reverberating in your eardrums hours, days, years later, just as it has for me.