By: Eric G.
Can Bjork make a musical watchable or, in this case, listenable? That all depends on your stance on Bjork (and musicals, I guess- actually, I’ll just assume we all hate musicals). Do you soak up Bjork’s affected and stuttered Icelandic drawl or do you find her pixie schtick tiresome? This album will not change anyone’s mind about Bjork because it doesn’t venture into any new territory for the alluring elfin chanteuse. Selmasongs is the musical companion to Lars von Trier’s Palme d’Or-winning Dancer In The Dark, and Bjork’s songs are inextricably bound to its themes, but not so much so that it isn’t well worth a listen on its own merits.
Having not seen the film I am aware of its basic premise: single mother struggles with imminent blindness as she slaves away in a metal factory with her only relief being an obsessive love of old Hollywood musicals. Sounds like a bad Calgon commercial. Bjork evidently immersed herself so deeply into her role that she almost lost touch with reality. Von Trier said she was horrible to work with because she didn’t act- she literally became her character (“I definitely was not Bjork for two years”). Selmasongs captures a sense of the escapism inherent to Selma’s plight. Bjork may be emoting through a character, but she injects enough of her own unique charisma and childlike aura to pull it all off.
Although, Bjork treads familiar ground musically, she expands on some of her previous successes. After the forgettable orchestral introduction, (which recalls certain musical themes from Michel LeGrand’s Umbrellas Of Cherbourg score), “Cvalda” winds and cranks through your speakers, reprising the showtune feel of “Oh So Quiet” off Post and trading in the latter’s bombast for scrapyard experimentation. “I’ve Seen It All” is a sentimental but effective duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Their voices blend together surprisingly well. Yorke remains subdued, singing in his lower register while Bjork squawks with her trademark yelp. The lyrics are playfully naive and sad. The song doesn’t grab you with an obvious chorus, but its subtle melodies keep you drawn in.
Bjork approaches the Cinderella-type escapism with wild inventiveness. All the clutter and clanking sounds represent her mindless job while the sweeping orchestral bursts signify her daydreams. It’s a fairly hackneyed premise, but Bjork melds old Hollywood cliches with cutting edge soundscapes well, creating a “musical” soundtrack unlike any other. “Scatterheart” sounds like Homogenic-era Bjork. The moody electronic syncopation underscores her multi-tracked vocals. Bjork has always accented notes strangely, and “Scatterheart” is no exception. Her inflection in the chorus seems to defy Western convention, giving the song a foreign, almost mystical air.
Selmasongs is too short of a teaser for the film. With seven tracks (one of which is an instrumental) running only thirty-two minutes, it’s hard to lose yourself in the fantasy. The most effective track, “In The Musicals 1 & 2”, runs the gamut of emotions, utilizing Bugs Bunny-type sound effects to boost the melodramatic turns. The jaunty bass line in the chorus counters Bjork’s typically downbeat intonation. All of the songs here rely heavily on rhythms to emphasize the flux of Selma’s scattered imagination. It’s hard to separate Selma from Bjork, especially without having seen the film, but, nevertheless, Selmasongs succeeds for its bold approach in a dying genre. It may be a lateral move musically for Bjork, but in terms of its context it makes giant strides.