Anyone still scratching their heads over all that Inuk throat singing on Björk’s last album, Medulla, will probably be relieved to hear that the Icelandic pop star puts rhythm right up at the forefront of her sixth solo effort. She likes to use the word ”tribal” when describing Volta, and, indeed, the record is heavy with beats. There are guest appearances from little-known, indie-centric drummers like Mark Bell of U.K. techno pioneers LFO and occasional Sonic Youth collaborator Chris Corsano. And there are the three tracks produced by Björk and Timbaland — a hyped pairing that’s inspired giddiness among pop fans who consider the Justin Timberlake Svengali to be a percussive panacea. All of which makes it a damn shame that Volta isn’t nearly as groovy as it sounds on paper.
Björk’s delivery is still dynamically kooky, and her special knack for majestic melodies is as uncanny as ever. But these elements are undercut by a simplistic new rhythmic direction. Where Volta intends to be primal and liberating, it too often feels crude and slapdash.
Take ”Earth Intruders,” a Timbaland track that opens the album. It echoes Björk’s 1995 marching anthem ”Army of Me,” but is hamstrung by oddly muffled drums. On ”Innocence,” Timbo’s kicks hit harder, but his snares — a sort of daffy cough-yelp combo — quickly grow irritating. He fares best later with ”Hope,” where his light drum pattern blends into the tune smoothly, recalling the soft sound of Vespertine, Björk’s quiet, laptop-crafted 2001 release.
Such nostalgic moments are the best bits of Volta. ”Wanderlust,” though not perfect, comes close to the thoughtfully layered electronic brilliance of 1997’s Homogenic. The song begins with the sound of boats blowing their horns in the harbor, and as the melody rolls in, Björk affirms just how far out she’s willing to drift — ”I have lost my origins and I don’t want to find them again.” Bell’s drums — all skittering and distorted — are a tad raucous for Björk’s plaintive wailing, but they provide an energy and a fullness that other tracks lack.
The disc’s problems, unfortunately, are more than a matter of poor percussion. ”The Dull Flame of Desire,” for instance, featuring warbling guest vocalist Antony Hegarty of New York-based avant-pop faves Antony and the Johnsons, begins strong, with the album’s prettiest horn melody. But the song’s title becomes all too appropriate as the duo tease and mangle the same refrain — ”I love your eyes, my dear” — over and over with increasing theatricality. The sappy vamping is so excessive that even Björk’s beautiful voice grows tiresome. At that point, not even the hottest beat would help.