FEATURE: Female Icons: Part Nine: Björk




Female Icons


IN THIS PHOTO: Björk IN 1994/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Part Nine: Björk


I could well have chosen someone like Kylie Minogue…

IN THIS PHOTO: Björk in 1994/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

for this week’s Female Icons but I think I will give it a couple of weeks. I am sure her Glastonbury set today will be a stormer so I am keen to include some clips from that if I can. Next week will see me focus on Aretha Franklin but, today, I wanted to include one of my favourite artists ever: the sublime and always-evolving Björk. Many might say that, compared to some of the legends of music, Björk is a bit new. Icon status can come after a relative short time; if someone changes music or makes that big impact then I maintain their status is correct. I also think that Björk has helped push music forward. Not only is she is of the most striking artists ever but her live performances are the thing of legend. I wonder whether Björk was considered for this year’s Glastonbury because I think she could have produced a truly beguiling set. Maybe she has date conflictions and would not have been able to attend but one hopes she is in mind for next year. I would love to see Björk’s many worlds transition to the stage at Worthy Farm. It would be immense to think of the possibility and what she could achieve. I do appreciate there is an irony starting the story with Björk’s 1993 album, Debut – she did release an album in the 1970s as a child but Debut is, effectively, her first proper release.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Jean-Baptiste Mondino

Debut is one of my favourites ever and I hold such affection for it. I know a lot of people gravitate towards the follow-up, Post, but I love the fact Debut introduced the world to this rare and truly unique artist; someone who would go on to change and keep her music fresh and inspiring. On her first outing, Björk brought together Trip-Hop, Pop; House and various other genres to create this eclectic and wide-reaching album. One can hear elements of Kate Bush’s vocal gymnastics – Björk actually cites Kate Bush as an influence – and Björk recorded a lot of Debut in England. She was drawn to the sounds and artists here. One time Björk was in Manchester and 808 State took her around the city; exposing her to Dance music of the time – and one can understand where some of the harder beats and elements might have come from. The Icelandic-born artist must have felt a little isolated in her home country and, whereas she was clearly inspired by sounds from the U.S., the Dance and House music of the U.K. around 1992/1993 clearly got into her bones. Debut, in a way, is Björk giving her version of the club culture in Manchester and London; the sense of joy and giddiness of the time with something personal to her – a shot of darkness, oddity and sensuous that took Dance and Trip-Hop in a new direction.

In some ways, Björk fitted seamlessly into a scene that was exploring love and together; at a time when music was aiming towards the positive and there was this great club culture. In many ways, mind, Björk stood outside of it. Her lyrics explored love in different forms but she was not a traditional songwriter. A lot her lines did not rhyme; there were unusual rhythms and her vocals soared, weaved and exploded. There are few songs on Debut that are traditional and dance-able – maybe Big Time Sensuality is an exception. I love Debut because there are so many different sounds and visions rather than this rather straight and obvious thing. This AllMusic review sums up the joy and complexities of Debut:

Though Debut is just as arty as anything she recorded with the Sugarcubes, the album's club-oriented tracks provide an exciting contrast to the rest of the album's delicate atmosphere. Björk's playful energy ignites the dance-pop-like "Big Time Sensuality" and turns the genre on its head with "There's More to Life Than This." Recorded live at the Milk Bar Toilets, it captures the dancefloor's sweaty, claustrophobic groove, but her impish voice gives it an almost alien feel. But the album's romantic moments may be its most striking; "Venus as a Boy" fairly swoons with twinkly vibes and lush strings, and Björk's vocals and lyrics -- "His wicked sense of humor/Suggests exciting sex" -- are sweet and just the slightest bit naughty. With harpist Corky Hale, she completely reinvents "Like Someone in Love," making it one of her own ballads. Possibly her prettiest work, Björk's horizons expanded on her other releases, but the album still sounds fresh, which is even more impressive considering electronic music's whiplash-speed innovations. Debut not only announced Björk's remarkable talent; it suggested she had even more to offer”.

How does an artist follow up an album that gained such interest? Between Debut’s release in 1993 and Post’s arrival in 1995, music had evolved and changed in the U.K. Britpop was starting to take charge and Grunge was starting to fade a little. There was still Dance music but, perhaps, other genres were taking a hold. Post is a louder and brighter album than Debut and one that opened up commercial possibilities. Even though there were some bold artists in 1995, Björk was in a league of her own and gave license to more experimental and bold artists. You can hear her influence in artists today such as Lorde but, at the time, Post was a revelation. Produced alongside Nellee Hooper and collaborators such as 808 State’s Graham Massey, most of the tracks were written after Björk moved to London. In the icier and scenic numbers, one can hear Björk’s native Iceland: the clash between the two worlds works beautifully and leads to this rich and nuanced album. Post reflects a new chapter – essentially life ‘post’ Debut. This is Björk settling in a new city and trying to fuse all the sounds and sensations bubbling and bursting in the clubs. If Debut was Björk putting together years-old songs and undertaking quite a long production process, Post was freer and a more spontaneous affair; a sense of multiculturalism works in every track and, despite that, Post is accessible and cross boundaries.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Stéphane Sednaoui

Before I bring in a review of Post, I want to feature an article from XS Noise that examined the album in 2016:

Post” reflected changes in Bjork’s life. The most pronounced change was Bjork having moved home base from Iceland to London. The release mirrored the urban fast pace life of the city she now called home. Her goal with the release was to integrate experimentation into popular music while using a wide emotional palette. The themes that repeat themselves throughout are; strength, instinct, and independence. Additionally the release was darker and more aggressive than “Debut”. It channeled the restlessness of the city but also displayed a fine balance between experimental whimsy and pop sensibilities. The album kicks off with one of my all time Bjork favorites Army Of Me. The back story of the song was that it was written with her brother in mind. She wanted him to get on with his life and deal with things. That message comes through loud and clear, “you’re alright there’s nothing wrong, self sufficiency please and get to work. The sentiment in the lyrics could be heard coming from the mouth of any parent of a teenager and is a sort of rally cry. The bombastic fuzz fest that is the accompaniment makes for one funky and driving work with its phenomenal beat. It is a perfect song for taking control and kicking the blues.

Like many artists following up a successful debut release, Bjork was under enormous pressure to deliver the goods. Many questioned if she would succumb to the dreaded sophomore slump that ensnares many performers. Post reveals that Bjork could exercise that demon and pull off yet another triumph with flying colours. Bjork again moves through so many genres, moods and sensations and comes out with a compelling timeless release. She would move on to record Homogenic in 1997 and complete the trilogy that marked her 90’s solo career. In the beginning of the new century she would move beyond the earthly concerns of musical popularity. Bjork would go on to shape-shift her way through the 2000’s and into her latest manifestation, 2015’s Vulnicura all the while retaining her solid fan base and critical acclaim. She has along the way become her own cloistered “genre of me” in a land where no one will ever unseat the queen. “Post” was her second step up to that lofty throne”.

SLANT made some interesting observations when reviewing Post back in 2003:

For many, the delicate balance of Post represented the ultimate Björkian pop experience, and one that has yet to be topped. In fact, Björk’s next album, her 1997 glass-dragon Homogenic, indicated with one fell swoop that Björk had moved beyond pop into what one might call her own cloistered “genre of me.” The shimmering Vespertine, from 2001, suggested a move on Björk’s part to translate her own unique musical style back into the world of pop (with some fantastically emotional moments like “Undo” and “It’s Not Up to You”), but Post will likely always remain the Björk album that most successfully sustains her winning balance of experimental whimsy and solid pop magic”.

It was clear that post-Post, Björk has the critical ear and was determined to keep pushing her music and bringing in new sounds. Recorded in Spain, Homogenic came about in 1997 and, as Britpop and club culture has changed and slipped away, Björk was also moving in a new direction. Whereas her first two albums were pretty big and multi-coloured, her work at this point was simpler and more focused, musically. If Post is bright and luminous then Homogenic is more abstract, chilly and Icelandic. Geographical influence had shifted but the uncategorisable nature of her work remained; the apex of her Electronic and Hip-Hop passions cemented into something unique and wondrous.

I think Homogenic remains Björk’s best-reviewed album. Björk wanted the album to reference her native Iceland and there is this huge shift from Post to Homogenic. I shall not bring in a review for every Björk album but, when it comes to Homogenic, one must look at the critical reaction. Pitchfork seemed to explain and explore Homogenic as well as anybody:

“…You don’t need to know any of these details to connect with Homogenic, however; its emotional impact far transcends the biographical footnotes of its making. Lyrically, the record picks up themes she had already explored on her previous two albums—loneliness; sexual desire; desperate, even defiant love; the feeling of being a fish out of water—but her writing is more vivid than ever before. “I’m a fountain of blood/In the shape of a girl,” she bellows in “Bachelorette,” and later, “I’m a path of cinders/Burning under your feet.” The song is a kind of epic saga, and Björk has explained that it forms the third part of a loose trilogy with “Human Behaviour” and “Isobel”—a sort of Bildungsroman about Björk’s own adventures in the wider world.

But the main theme running through the album is the wish to rush headlong into a life lived to the fullest—an unbridled yearning for the sublime. “State of emergency/Is where I want to be” she sings on “Jóga,” a song dedicated to her close friend and tour masseuse, in which churning breakbeats and slowly bowed strings mediate between lava flows and Björk’s own musculature—a kind of Rosetta Stone linking geology and the heart. “Alarm Call,” the closest thing on the album to a club hit (the Alan Braxe and Ben Diamond remix, in fact, is a storming breakbeat house anthem) shouts down doubt with the indomitable line, “You can’t say no to hope/Can’t say no to happiness,” as Björk professes her desire to climb a mountain “with a radio and good batteries” and “Free the human race/ From suffering”. 

After three albums of very different tones, the question was where she would head next. Björk turned in a more domestic and intimate sound with 2001’s Vespertine. The beginning of a new century saw digital sounds and sites like Napster come to the fore. Björk used instruments (on Vespertine) that would not be compromised when played on a computer. As such, she brings in instruments such as harps and the celesta; creating ‘microbeats’ and using household sounds to create this very intimate-yet-expressive world. Again, sex and love were lyrical drives. Björk was motivated by her relationship with Matthew Barney and you can hear this sensuality, sense of freedom and exploration ruining throughout Vespertine.

IN THIS PHOTO: Bjork photographed by Craig McDean in 1997

Vespertine is an album as noticeable for its visual inventions and moves as the sonic. Just look at the music video for Pagan Poetry and it revolves around a woman preparing herself for marriage; preparing herself as she sews a wedding dress onto the skin. It is an eye-catching and jaw-dropping video from an artist who, since Debut arrived, was using videos and visual elements to truly bring her songs to life. Verspertine is both of-the-moment and vintage; it celebrates the quiet and intimate but it is hungry with lust and always close to something rapturous. It is no wonder that, again, critics were hooked and Björk was being spoken about in rarefied and lofty terms. Medúlla found Björk moving away from electronic instruments and creating an album almost entirely comprised of human vocals. Uniting singers such as Mike Patton of Faith No More and beatboxers Rahzel and Dokaka, it was yet another move into the wonderfully captivating world of Björk – where would she head next?

To me, her two finest ‘modern albums’ are 2011’s Biophilia and 2017’s Utopia. The former was composed as a concept album during the 2008-2011 Icelandic financial crisis and explored the links between nature, music and technology. Biophillia is a multimedia project that was released alongside a series of apps. Not only was the album pushing technology and showed Björk was at the forefront of the cutting edge but she used newly-designed instruments for the album – the Tesla coil was used an instrument on Thunderbolt. It is another album that moved in a new way and captured the imagination. The Telegraph, in this review, poured praise on Biophillia:

So after the wild, tribal beach party of her last album, Volta (2005) she’s made a profoundly controlled, private and theory-driven record.

The science-themed Biophilia is a multimedia project pairing 10 songs with corresponding iPad applications on which Björk has collaborated with developers, scientists, writers, inventors, musicians and instrument makers. There will be a website, live shows and educational workshops.

But let’s just focus on the music here, which Björk has based on algorithms found in nature and fed through a combination of electronic and organic instruments.

It sounds, as she admits, like a recipe for disaster. But – shot through with Björk’s tangible sense of wonder – it’s surprisingly accessible, hypnotic and beautiful if you give it time and concentration: the audio equivalent of looking through a microscope at crystals growing.

The opener, Moon, is a melancholic stargazers’ meditation, which layers Björk’s idiosyncratic vocals over a brittle, icy harp. As she sings of cycles of rebirth, her voice is prayer-full of human yearning. Yet its peculiar, glottal angularity puts you in mind of astronomical charts”. 

 PHOTO CREDIT: Santiago Felipe

Utopia is, in a way, is Björk’s Tinder album – I think she described it as such. If previous albums have embraced existing loves, Utopia goes looking for new hope and enrichment. Most of the melodies on the album were written whilst Björk was walking in Iceland and you get this sense of the wilderness and Björk looking for new horizons. I think it is an underrated album and, whilst not as evocative and experimental as some of her earlier work, it is another stunning album. AllMusic raises some interesting points:

However, Utopia's lightness isn't to be taken lightly, and she spends much of the album diving into the therapeutic work that makes happiness possible. "The Gate" sounds and feels like a sacred transformation ritual; over a deeply intoning flute, Vulnicura's wounds become openings for love to be offered and taken (later, "Features Creatures" borrows some of this mystery for its romantic déjà vu). "Body Memory" responds to the centerpiece of her previous album, "Black Lake," but where that song pulled her down deeper and deeper, here she trusts her instincts as she climbs over obstacles and hangups. Even as Utopia breaks free from pain, its songs are shaped by it, whether on the mournful "Losss" or "Courtship," where a cycle of online dating rejections leaves Björk wondering, "Will we stop seeing what unites us/But only what differs?"


She focuses on how to make this unity a reality as Utopia draws to a close, most touchingly on "Tabula Rasa," a luminous wish that she burden her children with "the least amount of luggage" that she also extends to women to "break the fuckups of the fathers." Similarly, on "Future Forever," she urges listeners to turn off the loops of their pasts, but the bittersweet melody acknowledges just how big the gap between hopes and actuality can be. Utopia isn't quite as idyllic as its title implies, but its mix of idealism and realism makes it an even greater success as a manifesto for radically open love and as a document of thriving after loss”.

Before I come to the end – and bring in a review of her new live show – I wanted to highlight an interview she gave with The Guardian back in 2017 following the release of Utopia. It is a revealing and candid interview I urge people to check out. In the interview, Björk talked about Utopia and her dating life:

Björk thinks of her utopia as an island, perhaps one that was created out of an eco-disaster, an island where plants have mouths or hover like hummingbirds or grow out of your hands. “Do you know the fish in The Simpsons, that has three eyes? Like that.” (This makes me laugh: Björk is funnier than she’s given credit for.) In her head, women arrive to create a new, better society. They bring kids and music and eco-friendly tech, “and then there is the everyday life on the island”.

How are you with “dating”?

“Oh for me, that word is so ridiculous!” she says. “In Iceland, especially in my teenage years, we didn’t date. You just went out and you got plastered and you woke up the next morning with someone and… And you married them! I definitely don’t date, like go to a restaurant all dressed up.”

In a recent interview, Björk called Utopia “my Tinder album”. “Yes, because I thought that was hilarious, but obviously I would never be able to be on Tinder.” What she’s talking about, really, is fresh experiences with new people: the excitement and sexiness and clumsiness of those encounters. “People trying things out, and rejection, both ways. We all have chapters, and then when you start new chapters, it’s like: ‘I’m walking down the same streets I’m always walking down, I’m wearing the same clothes, but it feels like I’m on Mars.’ In the best possible sense, but also in a scary sense. I missed being this emotional explorer, I enjoy it”.

Björk also talked openly about sexual abuse in music and the entertainment industry and whether we have taken any progressive steps:

I think, perhaps no. But we’ve got another story going on now and it is important to address it. There’s this feeling in the air that if we address it now, in three years’ time it might be over.”

She is talking about sexual harassment and abuse. The night before I arrived, Björk issued a statement on Facebook in support of the actors who have spoken out about this. She said that she, too, had been sexually harassed while working in the film industry…

She named no names, though she was clearly talking about Lars von Trier, the director of Dancer in the Dark, in which she starred (Von Trier has since denied her claims). “My humiliation and role as a lesser sexually harassed being was the norm and set in stone with the director and staff of dozens who enabled it,” she wrote. Having long operated from a position of power in the music industry, she was shocked to find that actresses did not have such power. (In the cab on the way to this interview, I noticed that her first statement was the number one news item. It’s a reminder of how important Björk is in Iceland.)”.

In her latest live show, Cornucopia, Björk has yet again pushed the envelope but, in addition to visual and sonic innovations, she is keen to raise issues around the environment and promote change. This feature from Rolling Stone explains in more depth: 

Björk’s Cornucopia was billed as the Icelandic pop-iconoclast’s “most elaborate staged concert to date,” and it would be a tough claim to refute. The world premiere of the concert-like multi-media piece, commissioned by the newly-opened New York City art temple The Shed — an avant-garde culture outpost that opened last month alongside the controversial Hudson Yards luxury real estate development — featured a spectacular surround-sound installation, a 52-member Icelandic choir that at one point swarmed through the audience, other-worldly costuming, and vivid staging, including a bounty of jaw-dropping, lushly layered video projections. If the show ever makes it to Denver, where psilocybin mushrooms were just decriminalized, its swirling phantasmagoria would surely find a receptive audience. But it did, too, in the singer’s adopted hometown of New York City, as she wove together songs from her catalog into a female-centric fable of environmental crisis and pitch for radicalized Earth-stewardship.

IN THIS PHOTO: Bjork performs onstage during her Cornucopia Concert series at The Shed on 9th May, 2019 in New York City/PHOTO CREDIT: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images  

For all the beauty on display, the production is gloriously angry the way Björk can be at her best, embodying a sort of punk-rock Valkyrian fury. And it’s telling that the show’s takeaway, and final word, comes not from Björk, but from 16-year-old Swedish climate-change activist Greta Thunberg, speaking in an unprocessed video message against a backdrop of silence. She said in part:

“We are about to sacrifice our civilization for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. The biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. But it’s the suffering of the many which pays for the luxuries of a few. In the year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend the day with me. … Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes. Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis … And if the solutions within this system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. They have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. But I’m here to tell you that change is coming, whether they like it or not. The real power belongs to the people”.

I do wonder where Björk will head next and whether a new album will arrive next year; if we will see her tour here how she will evolve. There is no predicting Björk but she seems to be in very fine form right now. I have followed her music since 1993 and I have seen few artists accomplish as much and change between albums. She is one of the most exciting and influential artists around today and her albums are bounteous with life, texture and feeling. You can put on an album like Post or Utopia and submerse yourself. I do think Björk is an icon and deserves an awful lot of credit. She is an artist who stands on her own and, during a time when there is still too much predictability, we know Björk will never conform or become boring. She is a wonder of the world and that rarest of artists. She is always capturing what is trending and relevant but she puts so much of herself into album that you cannot compare her work with anything else. I do feel we will hear more from Björk this year and next and something fresh will come from her. It is a shame she did not get the chance to play Glastonbury this year but, as next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the festival, one feels a lot of legends will be invited to play. Let’s hope that, when the elite list is being drawn up, Björk is right near…

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

THE top of the list.