Charity singles suck. No really, they do, morally ambushing us into parting with our cash in ‘exchange’ for a vacuous piece of disposable pop-by-numbers, all in aid of a good cause. Or, more specifically, for the said artist to show just what good they are ‘giving back’ to the world. Save yourself the earache and just give your bank details over to the next chugger who accosts you on the high street instead. A tad cynical, you say? Well, yes, but when did you ever hear anyone actually saying ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ was a “good song”, whichever incarnation they refer to. So it’s always a little surprising when those regarded as having genuine artistic integrity jump aboard the charity bandwagon. How can those who put so much passion and intricate blood, sweat and tears into their work happily make something so disposable which will (usually) be overshadowed by the cause it’s supporting? The answer is simple, at least, in Björk’s book it is: throw caution completely to the wind with total disregard for the consequences.
Despite the weight that Björk’s music has in the industry today, her dabbling into good causes over the years has been surprisingly consistent. Headlining the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1996, a duet with Steve Coogan on Comic Relief 1997, headlining the Japanese leg of Live 8, and, most notably, releasing an entire album of bizarre covers and remixes of her 1995 classic ‘Army Of Me’ to help fund UNICEF’s support of the 2005 tsunami victims. Her dabbles into politics may be less frequent, but always seem to do the job – her stint at the Tibetan Freedom Concert was clearly 12 years too early, since it wasn’t until this year she landed herself in a bit of political hot water by dedicating ‘Declare Independence’ to Tibet while performing in China. So, what’s she gone and done this time?
Well, for the last year or so, the Icelandic community have been protesting about the government’s proposals to sell land to foreign investors who want to build more geothermal hydroelectric power plants on the country’s vast unspoilt natural landscapes, and rightly so. The website and campaign group, Náttúra, was established, and in June this year hosted Iceland’s largest ever free music event in protest, headlined by Sigur Rós and, of course, Björk. Both were officially made “friends of UNICEF” through their efforts, and much more global focus was given to the cause. However, they still have a long way to go as the proposals are still on the table. In light of current global events, jokes like “What’s the capital of Iceland?”…”£4.50!” might have people’s attention drawn elsewhere at present, but needless to say Náttúra’s cause is one that will directly affect every one of the nation’s 300,000 citizens. Hence the ‘charity’ single.
Björk has often paid homage to her homeland. Homogenic was constructed solely from string arrangements and harsh, volcanic beats designed to sonically replicate the landscape itself, with lead single ‘Jóga’ being a swooping, epic classic and “an attempt to write a new national anthem”. So, how else can she pay tribute to such a place? Named after the organisation which inspired it, ‘Náttúra’ is not your typical charity single, but it is a protest song in every way, shape and form. And protest it does. Loudly. A cold and bitter wash of wind, rain and volcanic rumbles open the track leaving you lost in a storm for a few moments, before being utterly pelted by absurdly dense death metal double kick drum solos from Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale. The ‘duet’ between Björk and Thom Yorke this was hyped to be hasn’t exactly happened; Yorke’s distant yelps and wails have been deeply processed into the sparse bassline and minimal synth ‘melody’ (a strong word to use for this track) – courtesy of long time collaborator Matthew Herbert – to create a very uneasy ambiance.
Without a doubt, it is Chippendale who steals the show here. The drumming is as mind blowing as it is aggressive. Björk’s vocals (in Icelandic) are short, sweet and full of panicked urgency. With barely three short lines per verse, it is swift and straight to the point, but it’s her singing – in all its sparseness – that makes the song into much more than just an angry drum solo, even without anything resembling a hook, a bridge or a chorus. The quirky pace with which she spits out the lines, with a chipper “Nat-ORRRR-ah!” following each, keeps the track above mindless headbanging. With a Volta-esque brass section behind her vocal melody or even a few more production twists, this could have rivalled fan favourites such as ‘Where Is The Line?’ or even rare B-side ‘Verandi’ in the loud, crashy pop stakes. But this is clearly something she has consciously avoided to not take away from the matter at hand.
Whereas Volta contained multicultural Technicolor own-brand protest pop, ‘Náttúra’ sees Björk bringing those sensibilities back to her homeland with a very pressing matter to address at the same time. It’s an obvious next step in her evolution. But she’s here to protest, not pop! As a fundraising charity single, ‘Náttúra’ is simply berserk, and will no doubt divide the eponymous movement as much as it will her more casual fans. As an impulse purchase as iTunes ‘Exclusive single of the week’, it’s actually rather terrifying and will likely repel the sort who thought she was pushing it with Medúlla‘s raw, primordial, a cappella soup. But as a protest song, it’s extraordinary in how literally she has translated her defiance into music. Most importantly though, as a Björk side project that could be a sign of things to come, we’re left with three minutes of something so utterly thrilling that you have to welcome the return of one of the last few artists who truly composes from her heart and not her head.
[One Little Indian; October 20, 2008]