Hearing Voices

The vocal wizardry of Bjsrk and Jeff Buckley

Vocals are rarely the focal point of contemporary rock; usually, they're just another instrument, muted to fit over and around the guitar at the heart of a song. Meanwhile, in current dance music, sampling rips words from the bodies of divas, mutating them into sped-up, stuttering, sourceless sounds. An album constructed around one voice is a rare thing, and that — not the singer herself — is what's truly weird about Post, Bjsrk's new release. A solo (ad)venture in the purest sense, Post builds its vast musical panoramas around Bjsrk's small, solitary, but strong persona. From outer space (“Army of Me”) to inner jungle (“Isobel”), from clifftop (“Hyper-ballad”) to cave (“Cover Me”), each track's exterior setting reflects Bjsrk's emotion and vocal motion.

The magic in Bjsrk's voice springs more from personality than technical range. In quiet mode, her tone has a hint of mischief, like she's whispering secrets; loud, her gurgles and screams convey infant excitement, not adult anger. Bjsrk frequently chooses words for their sensual quality, and she has that heightened English phrasing only foreigners like ABBA seem capable of: She doesn't just whistle her “s” 's, she turns hard consonants into soft sounds, too. This transition from feeling to thought to vocalization is natural. You can see the smile on Bjsrk's face when she slurs a silly word or phrase, and Post is full of them: “smitten,” “cuddle,” “mon petit Vulcan.”

The struggle to maintain “self-sufficience” (to quote “Army of Me”) in the face of romance is Post's theme. Pop declarations of female independence usually ring trite — think “I Am Woman,” think “Sisters (Are Doin' It for Themselves)” — but Bjsrk's are complex. “Hyper-ballad” coasts in with cymbals that splash and spray like waves; as her lover sleeps, Bjsrk walks a literal and metaphorical cliff, imagining what her body would sound like “slamming against those rocks” down below. And like any true fan of Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye, Bjsrk embraces the limits of experience; her happiness spills into violence, her sexual songs have an air of menace.

Conventional breakup ballads implicitly milk rejection and abandonment for masochistic thrills, but on “Possibly Maybe,” Bjsrk spells out her pleasure and pain: “Since we broke up/ I'm using lipstick again/ I suck my tongue/ In remembrance of you.” Even more striking is “Enjoy,” one of two collaborations with studio wiz Tricky. Filled with strange textures — droning organ, sharp horn blasts, hissing respirators, the brittle clatter of bones — the song is futuristic voodoo, trip hop minus the ennui, or “sex without touching.” Lost in sensory overload, Bjsrk tries in vain to get a grip — “I wish I'd only look/ And didn't have to touch” — before surrendering. This pattern of flirtation and retreat recurs throughout Post, yet the moments of pure joy come when Bjsrk is alone and excited, crawling “into the unknown” to “prove the impossible really exists.”

Such trips have their risks: Most male rock critics portray Bjsrk as a wacky sprite from another galaxy. Perhaps they think small women who don't come from America are cute little toys, or perhaps they find sentiments like “I'm only into this to enjoy” hard to relate to. Regardless, originality and honesty needn't be dismissed as “eccentric.” Post's musings about love and life are sometimes revelatory, and the album's sound (largely courtesy of Nellee Hopper and Graham Massey) is — to coin a paradox — sampling at its most original. At a time when Hollywood figures are plastic and vacuous, and rock icons rehash past rebellion with diminishing returns, Bjsrk is an honest-to-goodness, capital-“S” Star; riddled with odd aural doodads and gadgets, Post is her very own James Bond adventure.

Like Bjsrk, Jeff Buckley is given to high-pitched, wordless yelps that are part baby talk, part orgasm. He's a man, though, so this expressiveness and vulnerability make him a real oddball. Today, male rock vocalists mutter and shrug through verses and scream during choruses. To do anything more is to risk being branded a narcissist or sissy, but that doesn't stop Buckley. He plays top and bottom with equal flair, swaggering like Robert Plant one moment, whimpering like Morrissey the next. Dramatic and sometimes ridiculous, the singing on his debut, Grace, constantly breaks free from language, flying and exploding with spasmodic sighs, screams, and (a Buckley specialty) a wailing, weeping falsetto.

Buckley's too pretty, too artsy, and far too flamboyantly talented to fit into guy-rock tradition or the alternarock nation. On his album cover, he looks like Matt Dillon. In the video for “Last Goodbye,” he could be playing Paul Westerberg in an Aaron Spelling TV movie about the Replacements. Tonally, Buckley's voice cries out for a hug, and on MTV, he plays the wounded-lover role to the hilt. With pouting lips and tearful brown eyes, he comes across like a little boy who lost his father. Which, of course, he did: His dad, folk-rock artist Tim Buckley (also prone to extreme, original vocalization), killed himself in 1973.

Thematically — not artistically — the anxiety of paternal influence hangs heavy over Jeff Buckley's songs. Addressing a “Dream Brother” on the closing track, he begs, “Don't be like the one who left behind his name.” On “Grace,” he drops doom-laden imagery into every other line. The sensitive, feminine male role he plays isn't original, but it is rare, and Buckley's closest artistic relative of recent times — Kurt Cobain — is yet another dead rock star. Still, whereas Cobain wore his talent like a curse, Buckley — inferior as a songwriter but superior as a performer — treats his as a blessing. Stylistically, he's a true romantic, not a jaded one.

With virtuoso guitar work by Gary Lucas on a few cuts, Grace is instrumentally slick, but it doesn't play into any particular marketing niche. Heedless of fashion, it steers clear of grunge bravado and punk disdain for art, embracing less trendy, more pretentious genres: jazzy torch songs (“Lilac Wine”), art-rock epics (“Grace”), even classical compositions. The strangest adaptation has to be an operatic, near a capella rendition of “Corpus Christi Carol,” by gay British composer Benjamin Britten. A bold gesture that teeters back and forth between beauty and disaster, it couldn't be less manly, less rock 'n' roll.

On “So Real,” Buckley literally gets the spirit: Haunted and ghosty, his swooning falsetto shoots higher and higher into the sky as the song builds to an ecstatic, hysterical climax. Still, his own material is mostly average: It's the covers on Grace that reveal Buckley's immense gifts. His subtle, tender reading of “Lilac Wine” evokes Nina Simone, and a cover of Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” is sexual and religious. Whereas Cohen croaks lyrics like a cynic, Buckley dances a ballet over a delicate finger-picked melody, making a whole world out of the title word alone, bringing a different meaning to it each time he sings it. When he sustains a single syllable at the song's close, it's a moment of pure loveliness, and a reminder of how a truly great singer can make someone else's material his own.

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