Selmasongs - Music From The Motion Picture "Dancer In The Dark"
Elektra Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: JB
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/07/2001
No, the soundtrack to Bjork's film debut doesn't sound much like Bjork, despite the fact that she composed and produced all of the tracks with little collaboration. Her vocal methods are recognizable as is the ambient sparsity (or percieved sparsity) of the arrangements, but Bjork fans may be, not exactly disappointed, but surprised by the lyrics (that lean towards the conventional side), the lack of layers and textures, and the presence of a full orchestra. And I'm not talking about the little string octet in "Joga" on the album Homogenic but a full orchestra with an army of French horns.
At the time of writing this review, the movie musical Dancer In The Dark has not been released here in Thailand so I can only give you its merits as an album in itself. And while it is a substantial piece of work, it doesn't have the feel of a solid, multi-layered, stand-alone Bjork LP... more like an excellently produced EP that comes with the movie. The Asian release I have has only seven tracks. (Editor's note: The American release also has seven tracks.)
"Overture" is purely an orchestral track, which may sound boring with the first couple of spins, but once you're familiar with the melodic themes running throughout the disc (just like in a musical) it could easily turn out to be your favorite track on the album with its grand, subtle scale that seems to fill entire winter afternoons. It sets the melancholic, almost melodramatic mood of the rest of the album that persists even through the most energetic of dance numbers.
Speaking of which is "Cvalda", a dance number built over industrial sounds of machines clanging and banging, written for a fantasy sequence Bjork's character has in a factory (co-star Catherine Deneuve also drops a couple of lines, not bad). The track manages to be hyper and almost chaotic, sounding like no Broadway musical dance number yet unmistakably full of sequins and dancers in line. "In The Musicals" is a similar piece yet doesn't quite have the textures of "Cvalda", and it's really one of those soundtrack songs that's built for complementing what's on the screen and not for standing alone.
The centerpiece of the album is "I've Seen It All", a duet with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, that carries the smoldering melodramatic theme of sacrifice and love. Interestingly, the version on Selmasongs is not the version that appears in the movie, if the video (a clip from the movie) playing on MTV Asia is to be believed; the song in the video needs the context of the movie to explain the characters' emotions, yet on the album the song can stand alone. This brings to question whether the other tracks were also edited for the album, but here my Internet researching skills fail me.
"Scatterheart" stands out from the album as it sounds more like interior dialogue than a musical number (aria, dance number, orchestral interlude, etc.) and is closest to Bjork's LP work, with its cerebral textures and soundscapes. Yet it's also weak as a stand-alone track with its repetitious lyrics and enigmatic atmosphere, and needs the movie to explain its existence. "141 Steps" is also such a track as it only amounts to two people counting with some orchestral backup. I'm sure it's stunning in the movie, but otherwise, the song misses a vital component.
My favorite track on the album is the finale "New World" which combines the best of what this dark, hybrid album has to offer. Bjork uses the full strength of the central melody, the French horns are out again, and the entire finish is dramatic yet subtle, so subtle you may be bored of the track on first listening. You'll buy the album for "I've Seen It All" but you'll keep listening to it for "New World".
All in all, a strong album that falls a bit short (in quantity and complexity) of a stand-alone disc. It requires a bit of spinning, but Bjork is unlikely to disappoint her fans, and fans of musicals might have some interesting revelations as to how the power of austerity and subtlety can be applied to musicals in a world where musicals are becoming increasingly bloated.