Björk Gudmundsdottir has always been a strange one. The eccentric ex-Sugarcube draws her fashion sense from fairy tales, her voice from some alternate heaven and her music? Well, she once cited nature-show host Sir David Attenborough as her biggest musical influence, saying she identified with his thirst for exploring new and wild territories.
At least Attenborough went into dangerous jungles with a crude map; Björk charges headfirst into uncharted sonic terrain with little more than her intuition as a guide. Nine years of exploration have led her from the Sugarcubes' skewed New Wave pop to the trancy end of dance music to over-the-top show tunes and beyond. The results up till now have always been mixed: Björk's refusal to play it safe has always repelled mediocrity and has proved a large part of her charm.
On her second major solo album, this 29-year-old native of Reykjavik, Iceland, embarks on her most unlikely journey yet; Post comes up as victorious and gallant as any of her Viking forefathers. Chock-full of curious noises, mesmerizing vocals and musical surprises, Post provides a much-needed escape route from alternative rock's dull offerings of late.
While leagues of boys sporting goatees spill their dysfunctional guts over Ted Nugent-esque guitar licks, Björk forages for inspiration in the soundscapes of orchestrated jazz, ambient techno and classical. On Post she uncovers a range of specific sounds — not broad styles — that best express her emotions and color her arrangements. With little awe or irony, Björk blends these recognizable scraps and otherworldly snippets into a striking pattern of her own design, making Post an album that's post-everything but akin to nothing else.
Björk's now reaping the benefits of all that earlier trial and error. On her 1993 solo album, Debut, she finally toned down the rowdy theatrics of the Sugarcubes and began to fiddle with jazz rhythms and electronic effects with some success. Post sounds like the culmination of her quest. It's full of fantasy, humor and the grandiose, melodramatic, wide-open feel of old film scores. Most importantly, the music here finally challenges her voice.
Björk sings in smooth and subdued moods next to a delicate harpsichord, blasts out à la Judy Garland alongside screaming trumpet and growls over a tough, bottom-heavy beat. Her previously unbridled vocal swoops, from primal creature to flighty pixie, now cooperate and flow with the music around them. She communicates in creamy coos and guttural, bluesy belts. In both modes she emanates grace and raw power without forfeiting her uniqueness.
In "Blow a Fuse," a saucy big-band number originally recorded by World War II poster girl Betty Hutton, Björk saunters out like a sex siren in a smoky nightclub. Against the blare of a 20-piece orchestra, she purrs, then slips into a throaty growl and then releases a shrill "Wah!" that would shame both the Tasmanian Devil and Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna.
Most of Post isn't quite as flamboyant, however. The elegant "Isobel," yet another number featuring string arrangements and a smaller orchestra, snakes along like a patient desert caravan; the minimal "Cover Me" features nothing more than harp, hammer dulcimer, the sound of crashing surf under Björk's whispers.
The surreal hum and gurgle of ambient techno motivates "Army of Me," on which DJ Graham Massey of 808 State lends a hand. His approach — muted, bass heavy, Beasties-like — melts into transcendental lightness beside Björk's voice. "Enjoy," co-written with ex-Massive Attack member Tricky, contributes a menacing feel to Post via some seriously dark, seething undertones.
Björk enunciates her words carefully and clearly throughout, as if the slightest clumsy slip would shatter their meaning into a million pieces. Inside her delicately constructed English, bizarre Björkian imagery materializes. On "Modern Things" she sings, "I listen to the irritating noises of dinosaurs," and turns fantasy into morbid but honest wonderment for "Hyperballad." Here's what she sings over a sweeping, panoramic vista: "I imagine what my body would sound like slamming against the rocks, and when it lands, will my eyes be open or closed?"
But Björk is also affected by the everyday. On "You've Been Flirting Again," a number as seductive as the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz, she softly croons, "Give her some space, give her some time." She makes this benign piece of advice for the lovelorn feel like profound philosophy.
There's no point in trying to place Björk or her music in some bigger social picture. She thrives on fantastic impossibilities rather than existing realities. When Post comes to an end, it feels like getting back from a good vacation: The last thing you want to do is re-enter the real world.