- Artist: Björk
- Title: Debut
- Released: 1993
- Format: CD and FLAC
- Genre: Pop/Alternative Dance/Trip-Hop
- Beverage of Choice: Spindrift Grapefruit
I’m guessing that your current assumptions and attitudes towards Björk are binary – you probably either love her or hate her. I haven’t spoken to many music lovers that say “Yeah, she’s good”; they are either passionately for her eccentricities or can’t stand them. I’m in the former camp. This is the first album I bought with her name on it as I had enjoyed some of the guitar-driven music from the Sugarcubes and expected that she would extend their range with some different producers on the album. Turns out that she totally reinvented and overturned their sound to a modern, danceable musical form that also rewards the serious listener with Björk’s singular focus and vision for her art.
Firstly you have that immediately identifiable voice, with an endearing Icelandic-accented English delivery that she hasn’t ever lost/changed; it’s part of what makes her unique and precious to the world of popular music. Her style of breathy, emotional and sinuous vocal delivery brings tension and drama to the songs – sometimes on the beat , sometimes sliding and weaving all over the place in counterpoint and harmony. Debut brings a variety of styles and moods to your ears but each track is distinctively her own with a trademark stamp of authenticity, honesty and humor. Working with producer Nellee Hooper also gave her a collaborator who understood how to use all these elements and breathe life into the music to make it relevant to the times. The album has aged really well, sounding fresh and energetic compared to some of the tired and copy-cat tedium we have on the charts today.
“Human Behavior” kicks things off with a great percussive layer of clicks, military snare, timpani and other drums in an immediately immersive mix. Björk’s voice soars and dominates, double-tracked and providing background harmony. Björk, like Bowie was, is always ahead of the times, plugged into what’s happening now but making music that will become what’s next. Amply demonstrated by the next track “Crying“, the sounds are electronic dance music but so specifically arranged and engineered to match her delivery that it becomes something more; not only accessible but also truly artistic. Some influence here from Depeche Mode in the programming and the layers of synth but they give way to a clean percussion and electric piano. The vocals weave through the sharp-edged percussion and bass-line with smooth muscular precision showing off her range and power.
“Venus as a Boy” demonstrates one of the key elements of Björk’s canon – beauty. The sounds of bottle, synth bass line, bells, vibraphone, strings, keyboards and tabla are all arranged into a lush and gorgeous density of sound that immediately rewards the careful listener. Another aspect I’ve always associated with her music is sheer joy; joy of living, experiencing, being. At it’s core, it’s the sound of a person expressing the talent and vision they’ve been given, knowing that it will bring joy to someone else even if the lyrical subject line or musical arrangement is unconventional, difficult or challenging. In this case, the album is thematically consistent in that all the tracks are about love in some form, which makes this album even more joyful and pleasurable to experience.
A change in direction for the next track – “There’s More to Life Than This”. Recorded live in a club (actually in the bathroom), it’s a straightforward house dance track with an odd break for some breathy, cheeky and mispronounced lyrics (‘jetto-blaster’) from the very expressive singer. Another eccentric element is a penny whistle or flute in the arrangement – nice to hear as a focal point for dance music! Then a segue to jazz harp and the only song not written by Björk on the album, a ‘standard’ called “Like Someone in Love“. She makes it her own with ambient background noises throughout and her unfiltered and very breathy vocals showing us that she doesn’t need the artifice of art but could have had a great career singing songs written for her in any number of genres. Happily she’s chosen to make music that makes a difference and stuck to her guns throughout the years (and making good money along the way I am sure). Take heart young visionaries, your music will be appreciated if it’s honest and authentically your own, no matter how many people “don’t get it”.
Percussion leads the way again on “Big Time Sensuality” with a driving drum/synth program and high hat insinuating itself on top of the mix in the right speaker throughout. This was a big single off the album in Europe but America didn’t buy in – the sound was ahead of where things were musically in this country at the time. House and trip-hop, club music was an English trend that we started appreciating a couple of years later. I remember visiting London in early 1990’s and being amazed at the music that was being played that we simply didn’t ever hear in the USA. Artists like Massive Attack, Faithless, Tricky and others finally did break through here and converted a generation of fans to alternative dance music but Björk remains my favorite because, having demonstrated her mastery over the form, she moved on to the next album, Post, and delivered a hugely diverse set with only one track that could be labeled ‘danceable’. And then moved on again… and again. She is a genius and, as I mentioned before, should be spoken of with the same respect given to artists like David Bowie and Patti Smith.
“One Day” creates ambient tension in the mix with percussion and a subtly dark and moving bass line. This is trip-hop before it was ‘thing’; reminiscent of Tricky without that artist’s fierce vocal attack. Björk’s vocals are typically relaxed yet emotive and weave around the percussion and electronic soundscape providing contrast and dynamic range. The song segues without a break into bird song, more ambient sounds and then Zappa-like horns that are more jazz than pop. “Aeroplane” is a little darker in tone than the rest of the album as it deals with loss and separation. Here she demonstrates a remarkable ability to walk a tightrope between cacophony and accessibility and this is what makes her special. Such abrupt shifts in mood and cadence shouldn’t make sense but she somehow makes it so; relax and go along for the ride, ‘jungle sounds’ and all.
“Come to Me” is reminiscent of Portishead, chilly with some house and trip-hop elements. But they most likely took some of their direction from her. Like a lot of her music, it seems simple but is super-nuanced and expertly arranged. Gorgeous strings on this one should remind you that Björk doesn’t make ‘background’ music; it’s art that requires attention, patience and flexibility to appreciate that nuance but ultimately lead to new joys of discovery and expands our notion of what music is. I can’t overstate how important she is in terms of place and time for music lovers; she is ground-breaking, honest and in-your-face. “Violently Happy” is another dance track with spacy keys, huge bass line and percussive foundation. This music has really aged extraordinarily well and is just as enjoyable today as it ever was. I don’t know for sure but I expect that current EDM artists are sampling Björk left and right.
The final track on the album as it was originally released is “The Anchor Song” (there is an extra track on the re-release, “Play Dead”, which doesn’t add anything too special so I won’t review it here). The Anchor Song is a patriotic ode to her native Iceland and has, again, Zappa-esque horns and discordant highlights that only accentuate the purity and impact of her voice which is ‘pretty’ and emotional on this track. The up-close and unfiltered recording gives the listener direct access to the resonance and unique inflections in her voice.
If you don’t already appreciate Björk, give this album more than one listen. I’m an old metal-head and it did take me a while to get to the heart of her music. In there, I found a new love for the sheer vastness of our musical universe and how much there is left for me to discover and enjoy. I hope you get to do the same.