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Behind the music: Revisiting Björk’s boundary-breaki...

Maverick Life

MATTERS OF OBSESSION

Behind the music: Revisiting Björk’s boundary-breaking solo albums

Bjork performs on stage at "Live 8 Japan" at Makuhari Messe on July 2, 2005 in Chiba, east of Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

Often dubbed the queen of avant-garde pop, Björk’s breakthrough solo albums, ‘Debut’ and ‘Post’, are iconic and dynamic in their sound.

Filled with colour, energy and inspiration from her past and surroundings, Debut and Post, the coming-of-age albums of the now 55-year-old Icelandic musician Björk, are a great showcase of the kind of mark she is leaving, with each song, on the world of music. 

When her punk-rock band, the Sugarcubes, dismantled in late December 1992, Björk took her talents to London and embarked on a solo career where she immersed herself in the culture of the place and took inspiration from the city’s underground club scene. Debut and Post were most certainly a move away from the alternative rock sounds of the Sugarcubes. 

Her move to the UK was a creative decision and a step she felt needed to be taken to progress her sound. “I just had to follow my heart, and my heart was those beats that were happening in England. And maybe what I’m understanding more and more as I get older, is that music like Kate Bush has really influenced me. Brian Eno. Acid. Electronic beats. Labels like Warp. And if there’s such a thing in pop music as a Music Tree, I see myself on the same branch, you know. And for me it’s almost like you know, I’ve been calling it ‘matriarch electronic music,” she told Time magazine’s Isaac Guzman in a 2015 interview ahead of her Museum of Modern Art exhibition, which was spread over three floors. It included photographs, music videos, costumes and custom-made instruments that have been prominent in Björk’s career since the late 80s. 

Björk is a music purist and genre-fluid artist whose sound has stood the test of time since its global take-off in the 90s. 

‘Debut’

Debut was released in July 1993 and is infused with electronic and house beats, inspired by the sound the singer heard in nightclubs.

The album was recorded in the aftermath of Björk’s split with her childhood band, the Sugarcubes, and by the time their Stick Around for Joy album was released that year, the writing for Debut was half done. 

She was working closely with Graham Massey from electronic music group 808 State from Manchester. Through her boyfriend at the time, Dominic Thrupp, she was introduced to a music producer from Bristol, Nellee Hooper. She and Hooper had similar ideas about how they wanted Debut to sound and went on to work on the majority of the project together. 

Now that she was solo, Björk wanted to explore as much sound as possible for Debut. Techno-like beats and upbeat house sounds are prominent in this album, almost serving as an ode to the UK dance scene that Björk and Hooper were exposed to in London and Bristol respectively. 

If you listen to the instrumental on Crying, the second song on the album, the chords and the drums transform the sound into something close to dance music: it’s infectious and bouncy, and the way the piano and bass combine make it that well-rounded house anthem that would move crowds in clubs. 

That song, along with many others on the project, shows how far Björk was willing to move from her punk-rock past. She’s coming of age and inserting herself into a music mould that was too difficult to place in a specific genre. 

Bjork performs at Hammersmith Apollo during her Volta world tour, on April 14, 2008 in London, England. (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

Then there is There’s More to Life Than This, another song made for nightclubs, or so it feels. Recorded live in the toilets of the Milk Bar in Soho, London, the production is impressive, leaving the listener with the feeling that Björk is going in and out of the bathroom, her voice lifting through the sound of the door opening; in addition, the instrumental being turned up-and-down as she moves between the bathroom and the dancefloor is a great sonic element. The album isn’t all high-octane and Björk turns it down a notch with the ethereal Like Someone In Love, a romantic, slow, jazz-like record that shows the singer’s stripped-down emotions, starting with these lyrics: “I cannot live peacefully without you for even a moment. I miss you terribly when you’re away. He’s away, this ain’t right. I’m alone, I’m taking an aeroplane across the world to follow my heart.” The harp on the song was played by jazz musician Corky Hale. 

Aeroplane, which follows similar lyrical themes to Crying, shows Björk’s love for jazz, while Come to Me and Violently Happy are hazy and hypnotic respectively; both sound like something you’d hear in the early hours, when, still at a club, you’re not aware of how bright it is outside – the party is dying out but there’s enough good music from the DJ to keep you moving slowly with the last bit of energy in your body. 

A stand-out element of Come to Me is the trip-hop influence, a sound developed in the UK in the early 90s. It is a slow hip-hop beat alongside synthesised sounds that give it a hypnotic feel. The Anchor Song that finishes the album is Björk’s ode to her home country and is the only song on the album she produced by herself. 

With all the influences that are put together cohesively on this album, Björk focuses on the sound of the saxophone, bringing in both life and sadness, a reminiscence of her life in Iceland. 

‘Post’ 

It was a combination of things. I felt the album was the other half of Debut, so it made sense to call it Post – before and after kinda thing. Also, my friend Hussein Chalayan had made a whole [clothing] collection on Belgian envelope paper (I wear a jacket from it on the cover), so it sort of was in the air at the time. This word was waiting to be used,” Björk told Stereogum in March 2008. The album title also refers to the songs being post-Björk’s move to London. 

“The picture on the cover is me on Piccadilly Circus (Times Square of London) too excited, too many things, Bright Lights Big City kinda thing, and me eager to consume. So my musical heart was scattered at the time and I wanted the album to show that,” she said. 

In fact, on the cover she’s wearing a white blazer with blue and white trimming, with a huge pink circle behind her head against a background filled with multicoloured patterns. 

Post is made of more collaborative efforts: Hooper continues his impressive work with Björk, along with British producer, record mixer and musician Massey, who was one of the first people she worked with in the UK. She also brings on trip-hop pioneer Tricky (her boyfriend at the time). Björk co-produced every song on the album. 

The sonic themes of Post are just as experimental as Debut, although she now adds techno sounds – evident in the opening song Army of Me – jazz soundscapes and elements of classical music. 

Post proves Björk doesn’t allow herself to be complacent in the music she creates; she’s on a quest to make music that sounds completely different to anything she’s made or heard before. She also allows her voice to come through more prominently than she did on Debut, where she gave us a glimpse of her range. Her soothing voice floats on instrumentals like a film score from a fantasy film – Isobel is a good example. 

Arguably the biggest song on this album is a cover of a remix of Betty Hutton’s 1950s song It’s Oh So Quiet. A huge hit (it charted in the top 20 in the UK), Björk recorded it with a 20-piece orchestra. She decided to cover the song not only because it was played constantly on the tour bus, but for the shock factor. 

“It was the last song we did. Just to make it absolutely certain that the album would be as schizophrenic as possible, that every song would be a shock,” she said.

In both Debut and Post, Bjork immerses the listener in her story. You enter with intrigue and you leave with your perspective on pop completely changed. It’s like a fantasy world of music that you never want to leave. 

Björk’s dynamic and eclectic musical talent makes it difficult for critics and listeners to place her in a box. She’s able to put her thoughts and sounds into a cohesive and compelling story. Both albums are incredible, boundary-pushing projects that can be looked at as musical twins. Indeed, both have 11 songs, they’re length differs by two minutes, both were made with British producers and both exhibit how passionate she was about sound and that there was no ceiling to her exploration of it. DM/ML

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