From the off-kilter pop of the Sugarcubes to ambitious solo outings like 2004’s a cappella Medúlla, the widespread popularity of Björk has always seemed odd. The Icelandic chanteuse has consistently exhibited the kind of passionate idiosyncrasies that would be at odds with common denominators of mainstream taste. Sure, records like Debut and Post may have suited the post-Lollapalooza times, but it’s remarkable that a large segment of the public knows her for anything other than wearing a swan dress.

But then I’ve never been a good arbiter of popular trends, even when my own tastes precipitate them. That Björk was able to mount a tour as extensive and extravagant as the one she did in support of 2007’s Volta is surprising, mostly because of its relative lack of commercial success, despite contributions from hitmaker Timbaland. But again, Björk has never hesitated from following the whims of her muse, and if that means a year on the road with a 13-piece backing band then so be it.

The end result is Voltaic, the audio and video documentarian companion that is available in five formats: either a single CD or album of “Songs from the Volta Tour” recorded live at Olympic Studios, a set with the aforementioned CD and a DVD of a Paris concert and a show in Reykjavik, a similar set of the same that adds in a CD of Volta remixes, another package that adds a DVD of Volta videos to that mentioned previously, and a deluxe version that includes all the CDs and DVDs as well as three albums of the songs on the CDs. (I was privy to the two-disk CD-DVD option, which may be as much Björk as one can take in one setting.)

The DVD is a study in contrasts. A mix of orchestration and pandemonium, the show recorded at the Olympia in Paris is a production somewhere between Busby Berkeley and Carnival that Björk’s character in Dancer in the Dark might have dreamt up. The singer and her troupe of horn players enter decked in a multi-colored silks, launching immediately into the multi-culti thump of “Earth Intruders.” With Damian Taylor manning a mixing board onstage as well as a bevy of other electronics including a reactable, an instrument that looks like the mutant offspring from when a pong game and an air hockey table got together, the ensemble seamlessly blends all the varied organic and mechanized components of Björk’s oeuvre. Best among the set, though, are cuts emanating from Medúlla, if for the curious ways they are manifested with instrumentation if nothing else. “Where Is the Line” is particularly jarring, big electronic beats juxtaposed with choral vocals, as is “Who Is It,” which is turned into a crescendo of horns and computer chirps. The crowd is the most ecstatic for “Army of Me” and “Hyperballad,” but Björk’s at her best at her most erratic.

The other portion of the DVD, recorded at Langholtskirkja in Reykjavik, is like a church recital by comparison—in fact, it appears to be a in a church. Here, that country’s biggest star and her troupe are more prim and proper, performing fairly sedate, but no less powerful, versions of “My Juvenile” and “Sonnets/Unrealities XI,” among others. It’s not until “Mouth’s Cradle,” when the machines are unleashed that things get more exciting, the electronic thump filling the spires.

As mentioned, there’s a CD to the set too. But after the visual impact of the DVD, it seems like little more than the audio afterthought to the tour, which in some ways it is. But it’s the same ensemble playing live, albeit without the impetus of the crowd, so it is still suitably stunning. However, for the full display of Björk’s prowess, it’s hard to compare to her in the flesh. Surely, nothing does, but these videos are as close at it gets.
Stephen Slaybaugh