Debut Gold and Post-Partum Progression
THERE are few artists who have made as big a contribution to...
modern music as Björk. In terms of innovation and reinvention; none match her sense of style, impact and wonder. This year (in July) it will be twenty-four years since Debut – strangely, not her debut album – was released. From the opening notes of Human Behaviour – the first track from the L.P. – you know something special is happening. The strange and bellicose percussion; the experimentation and odd sounds – all elevated by a unique and otherworldly vocal. When I first heard that album - I must have been ten at the time – it was like stepping onto another planet. Nobody like Björk had made its way to my ears: there has been nothing quite like her since. Sure, artists like Kate Bush may have inspired her vocal approach and style of songwriting – that is the only other artist I can think of. What amazes me about Debut is the sheer confidence that runs through it.
Produced with Nellee Hooper; it is an album that bristles with passion, storybook fantasy and intensity. Venus as a Boy is beguiling and flowing; Big Time Sensuality feverish and emphatic; There’s More to Life Than This intimate and atmospheric – the fact it was recorded at the Milk Bar toilets gave it a certain ‘gravitas’ and unusualness. There are fans/critics who think Björk made a better record but I am not so sure. Taking this position suggests everything that followed Debut was inferior but that is not the case. Post, the sophomore album, is more varied and confident than Debut but I will always hold Björk’s first album as her finest. I get sucked into the record and everything unfolding. Even then, at such a young age, the Icelandic legend was taking charge of the songwriting and ensuring as few hands as possible was in the mix. That is a lesson for songwriters in today’s market: look at what can be achieved when you assume control and create a singular listening experience. Maybe contemporary artists do not have the same vision and talent as Björk - but too many rely on other producers/writers to help them achieve their sound.
Debut is an album that, yes, has a few minor songs – One Day and The Anchor Song do not get mentioned often – but they are still fantastic tracks. The entire album makes a huge impact and shows what Björk is one of the most enduring and respected artists of the past twenty-five years. Following on from Debut was 1995’s Post. THIS is the album you’ll see on the critics’ best-of-the-best lists and always gets people talking. From its beautiful and striking cover to its brilliant videos – the promotional for It’s Oh So Quiet is especially memorable – you felt an artist growing and increasing her confidence. Not that she was lacking on Debut but, on Post, the songs were bigger, kaleidoscopic and diverse – everything from tender and child-like (Isobel) to domineering and machine-like (Army of Me). A few writers do make their way onto the album but, for the most part, it is Björk at her purest and most widescreen. There are a couple of weaker tracks but, like her debut, the sheer brilliance and quality that runs throughout compensates.
Another magnificent album that brought in new instruments, soundscapes and ideas. That is why Björk remains unique but compels so many young songwriters: those cinematic and evocative scores; the way she weaved her vocals and creates something physical and spiritual. Skewed, peculiar – yet always accessible and inviting – it meant Post gained huge critical acclaim and saw Björk elevated to the public bosom. It was another two years before Homogenic arrived. That album was a salute to her home country of Iceland – despite the fact it was recorded in Spain. Homogenic has glacial strings and lava-warm pulses: the innocence of childhood and the fears of adulthood. It is a spectacular album that does not repeat previous works.
Artists in her position could easily have replicated themselves and done something quite familiar. Homogenic retained Björk’s distinct vocals and pioneering compositions but walked into new territory. Perhaps icier and more simplistic than previous work – Björk wanted a single sound and something quite pure – it contains few sweet and Pop-like numbers. Anyone expecting bombast and big anthems would have been a little disappointed. An album dedicated to Iceland would, naturally, have some cheerier moments and optimism. That was not what Homogenic was about. Björk wanted to try something new and go back, sonically, where she started her life. It is another bold move and spectacular album that, in lesser hands, could have been a disaster. Critics were welcoming and impressed by the album. Rather than hark back to Debut and Post; they found much to admire in Homogenic. Some felt Björk would never equal and album as groundbreaking and astonishing as Homogenic. A daunting gauntlet and proclamation for an artist to hear: it did not phase Björk – she went on to create many more astonishing albums and, in many respects, did not need to top Homogenic. It is a singular creation that showed a very special side to her.
Later albums, Vespertine and Medúlla arrived in the early-mid-2000s and carried on that legacy of wonderment and brilliance. Those albums, more in common with Homogenic than her earlier material, gained huge plaudits from the critics. Vespertine, especially, was seen as one of the finest albums of the '00s and a mature work – from an artist able to project eccentricity and excitement without seeming undisciplined and unfocused. That balance of maturity and youth – sounding grown-up without appearing old – was a bold move from someone renowned for her captivating energy and experimentation. This phase of career - compared to the Debut-Post regency - signalled new endeavours and mood – a woman wanting to compel in silence; little need to overwhelm the senses with sound and histrionics. Not that her early albums were over-emotive and reckless – this was Björk more settled, at peace and, dare one say, better?!
That is a claim shared by many critics at the time. Vespertine shot to the top of many critical lists – some put it among the top-five albums of the decade (as it was released in 2001, these were retrospective lists). Medúlla (released in 2004) was less glacial and demure than its predecessor. It reignited some of the joy one experienced (last) on Post. Not that it was a complete return to her previous days – a way to tie some of her older sounds with new discoveries. Volta arrived in 2007 and, forged a balance between her Pop-sounding work of the '90s with her experimental music of the '00s. It was embraced by critics but some were unsure whether it was as coherent as striking as it could be - a bit messy in places and not what we would expect from someone so spectacular. Björk wanted the album to be a lot more 'up' and propulsive than her previous two albums - that need to create something fun. Almost a return to Debut and Post: Volta encapsulated that early energy and youthfulness. Perhaps those albums captured a time and were part of a 'phase' for Björk - some were not ready for a return to that sound. Regardless; tracks like Earth Intruders and The Dull Flame of Desire have a unique eccentricity that one could not help fall for.
If anything, her two most-recent albums – 2011’s Biophilia and 2015’s Vulnicura – pushed Björk’s music AGAIN. Biophilia composed the album as a concept – during the 2008-2011 Icelandic financial crisis. The album explores ties between nature, music and technology. It was the first ‘app. album’ and was released as a multimedia project – linking the album’s themes to musicology projects.
That was followed by educational workshops in four continents. Not only did Björk create a unique promotional campaign but was determined to educate and bring vital lessons to people. Biophilia, in parts a musical experience; in others, an educational lecture. The music contained astronomy, apocalypse and oddity. Björk created her own sound and (a record) part-spacey and detached; part-focused and human. Critics were not as hot on this album as previous but recognised Björk’s ever-continuing desire to change music and push sound to new limits. Few artists take the trouble to redesign and reinvent music. Many, who might have lost some affection for the Icelandic treasure on Biophilia, were back on board for Vulnicura. Many proclaimed it her boldest and best work in a decade: stylistically similar to Homogenic and expansive – daring and challenging as she was on her debut.
It has been two years since her last album but, one suspects, Björk will be back in action very soon! As you can tell from that rundown, and hear from the playlist below, she is someone constantly evolving and surprising the people. Twenty-four years from her debut release; there is a fondness and love for Björk I have not seen in other artists – that constant support and affection. In fact, it is more respect: a woman who speaks out against sexism and proves she is more than a match for any of her male peers. On that note; I have been lobbying, like many, for women to take the headline spots at our biggest festivals. It seems only natural, when Glastonbury returns in two years, Björk is considered as a headliner. Given the impact she has made on music – and the legions of musicians inspired by her – how could she not warrant a top slot?! She would put on an epic and mind-melting production that is for sure. I am surprised she was not approached this year: a Sunday night closer from Björk would have been spectacular. I wanted to concentrate on Björk’s music career – she is someone who engages in politics; is a talented author and a bit of a polymath. Whether you bond with her music or not: there is no doubting the influence and talent of Björk.
She remains of the most spectacular and intriguing talents in all of music. I am excited to see what the next few years hold and whether we will see more material. If/when that does happen; one has to ask what shape it will take? Given the way she has embraced technology – transforming her music through it – will her next album be an ultra-modern technological and digital exploration?! Perhaps she will subvert expectation and release something left-field (even more so than usual!) or return to her roots. We could see a Folk album or something entirely instrumental. Who knows with Björk – that is the great thing about her. I look at musicians one would consider ‘unique’ – in the truest and most unquestioning sense – and would put Björk alongside the likes of Kate Bush and Bob Dylan. She is THAT special – long may she continue to reign! Listening to her music is like steeping into another world. One is, at first, wary but embraced the quirkiness, evocativeness and beauty. When all is said and done it is a…
GREAT place to be.