The Monthly music wrap: September 2017

By Anwen Crawford
The majesty of Björk, new releases from Ibeyi and The Orbweavers, and more

Björk’s new single, ‘The Gate’, released last week, must be one of the most extraordinary things she’s ever done, which is saying something. For more than 30 years now she’s been expanding pop music’s various dimensions – musical, visual, technological – with the strength and abundance of her own creative power. Let me name that power for what it is: genius.

‘The Gate’ attests to a regeneration that can only be reached in the wake of emotional fracture. “Split into many parts,” Björk sings, rolling her ‘r’ towards infinity. She has always treated words as a sonic material, and that tendency is made stark in this song, where her voice is left hanging amid an arrangement without a beat or even a time signature – scarily, courageously free. “Splattered light beams into prisms,” she goes on, “That will reunite / If you / care for me.” In the accompanying video, a sphere of light repeatedly passes between Björk – resplendent in a plasticky, iridescent gown, like a Venusian dragonfly – and a molten, winged creature.

Björk’s songs have often suggested a world in which to be most oneself is also to be transformed in the presence of an other, with that other equally likely to be human, animal, mechanical, natural or alien. And while her previous album, Vulnicura (2015), was wrought from the changes forced upon her by heartbreak, her forthcoming album, due in November, will possibly be called Utopia. Hissing noises puncture ‘The Gate’ like the sound of airlocks opening; devastation is the ground upon which new hope and new love enter. Or at least that’s the case in Björk’s universe, which is a sign of her endurance – emotionally, artistically – and of her munificence.

It’s been quite a month in which to think about endurance. Matt Canavan told LGBTQI+ people in Australia to “grow a spine” in the face of a cruelly gratuitous postal survey on marriage equality. Donald Trump called black athletes who have been protesting police brutality in the United States “sons of bitches”. Powerful people can insist upon endurance as a condition required of the marginalised, while they themselves get to be testy and impatient.

“Whatever happens / Whatever happened / We are deathless,” sing Ibeyi on the chorus of ‘Deathless’, the lead single from their second album, Ash, which is released this Friday. Ibeyi are a duo of twin sisters, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz, who were raised in France and Cuba, and who sing in several languages, including English, Spanish and Yoruba. Ibeyi’s self-titled album was released in 2015, while the twins also made an appearance in the film version of Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016).

‘Deathless’ is strikingly assured. A springy bass synthesiser sets the song in motion, counterbalanced by the twisting saxophone lines of Los Angeles jazz musician Kamasi Washington. “He said, he said / You’re not clean / You might deal / All the same with that skin,” sings Lisa-Kaindé in the verse; according to a press statement, the song was prompted by her experience of wrongful arrest, and in these lines she gives voice to the racism that so often accompanies the policing of black people.

At other points in ‘Deathless’ the vocals are stacked to suggest a multitude, while in the video the two sisters continuously give birth to new versions of themselves. It’s a replenishment in the face of potentially deadly prejudice, an insistence upon living at one’s full capacity. “Won’t be shamed,” the women sing on ‘No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms’, another track from Ash. It’s an album that responds to the current political landscape with both anger and grace.

A different and destructive kind of endurance makes itself felt in ‘Radium Girls’, by Melbourne duo The Orbweavers. The song is based on the true story of some young women from New Jersey, who worked in factories run by the United States Radium Corporation (USRC) from about 1917 to 1928. It was the job of these women to paint luminescent radium dials onto watches supplied to the military; they were encouraged to lick their paintbrushes between applications.

“Straight into your bones / That’s where heavy metals go,” sings Orbweavers vocalist Marita Dyson over a mournful, spacey arrangement. “And in a thousand years / You will still be glowing here.” That’s true, too: the remains of a woman employed by the USRC, exhumed in 1927 during the course of legal action, were found to be luminescent. And how timely – forgive the pun – a song about radiation poisoning feels.

Much of The Orbweavers’ new, third album, Deep Leads, traces interactions between human beings and the natural world, where “natural” does not imply benign, and human beings are far from innocent. “Foxgloves sway / in the poison garden,” sings Dyson on ‘Poison Garden’, accompanied by a quick, dipping string melody. The foxglove flower is toxic to both humans and animals, but it is also the source of medicines that can be used to treat heart failure. The Orbweavers’ songs, too, express a kind of double nature: gentle yet eerie, old-fashioned in feel but contemporary in their concerns. The music of Deep Leads contains a lot of space, and the effect of that space is to underline the musicians’ presence: here we are, inside a world that we have made.

Of note: Long-running Montreal collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor have crafted another threnody for a dying planet with their sixth album, Luciferian Towers. Toronto’s Alvvays add synthesiser to their sweetly overdriven guitar sound on Antisocialites, while Melbourne psychedelic group Beaches wig out on Second of Spring. Rapsody, whose profile was boosted in 2015 with a guest appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, delivers her third album of lyrically dexterous hip-hop with Laila’s Wisdom, named after her grandmother. Jen Cloher compiles one hundred songs by Australian women for Double J, while Devonté Hynes, who works as Blood Orange, talks with Philip Glass for NPR about crossing boundaries both geographical and musical. And the genre-busting Bristolian post-punk group Maximum Joy have some of their best work reissued on I Can’t Stand It Here on Quiet Nights: Singles 1981–82.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Björk in the video for ‘The Gate’

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