Is Bjork the Last Great Pop Innovator?The Guardian, 4th July 2011
by Simon Reynolds
(director's cut version: working title "Brand New, She's Never Retro")
Earlier this year I interviewed Amanda Brown of cult band LA Vampires and was surprised when she announced that "every day I wake up and ask myself 'How I can be more like Bjork?' How can I be the most ecstatic, eclectic artist?" Surprised because Bjork had dipped out of view in recent years and I confess that I'd half-forgotten how interesting she was as an artist--and just how long she'd stayed interesting.
Uncut, October 2001
by Simon Reynolds,
She's not a bit how you'd think she'd be. From the public persona of song and video, you might reasonably expect effervescence, an explosive extravagance of self; at a bare minimum, vivaciousness. But Björk 2001 is surprisingly subdued.
She's also oddly awkward for a seasoned superstar who's been interviewed a gazillion times, nervously asking if I mind if she has something to eat. We're in a Japanese tea room a few yards from the rehearsal studio in Chelsea, New York, where she and her "band" – experimental electronica duo Matmos – are adapting the new album Vespertine for Björk's upcoming world tour of opera houses.
One symptom of her discomfort is an almost Tourette's-like compulsion to pull at her face – tugging at her cheeks, wiping her nose and almost-picking with little digs on the rim of the nostril. These tics go on for so long I start sneaking peeks to see if anything's lodged up there, some dangling boulder of bogey. But nope, clean as a whistle – two of the daintiest nostrils I've ever seen.
Over the next two hours, Björk is perfectly forthcoming, but there's this sense that she's wary, withholding herself somehow. In the past she's talked of being a warrior, and 'fierce' remains one of her favourite words. But 'flinty' seems a better fit for this new Björk. Seemingly made of the same stuff as Iceland's igneous landscape, she's like a pebble: small, but elementally obdurate. "Born stubborn, me," as she sings on Vespertine, an album that is all about sanctuary, withdrawal, and privacy.
Maybe this hard shell is something you acquire when you've been in the public eye for 25 years. Björk first became a star aged 11, when her album of pop covers was a smash in Iceland. "I didn't like being recognised on the streets," she says, nibbling at a tofu salad. "And I felt weird 'cos all I did was sing the songs. I only wrote one tune on the LP." Instead of doing a follow-up, she shaved her eyebrows and started an all-girl punk band. Spit & Snot, the first of four (some accounts say seven) bands she participated in before The Sugarcubes.
Icelandic punk had a different inflection – it wasn't fuelled by political rage (Iceland has no class system, claims Björk) or death-tripping nihilism. Instead, it was about overthrowing Anglo-American pop-culture imperialism. "Before punk, the only live bands were cover bands who'd sing in English. Icelandic punk was this explosion of live bands, all singing in Icelandic – a statement of pride. And it was very positive – happy punk. Nobody on heroin!" Post-punk music from overseas was almost impossible to get hold of, so Björk and her friends started an import record shop. "Everybody worked for free. It was the punk spirit."
After drumming in Spit & Snot, Björk played flute for the prog-rocky Exodus, then sang in another happy-punk outfit, Tappi Tikarrass (which translates as "smooth as a cork in a bitch's arsehole"). But Björk's most formative band, pre-Sugarcubes, was Kukl, an Icelandic post-punk supergroup that included future Cubes Einar Orn and Siggi Baldursson. "I'm a bit mushy about that band," she says, twinkling ever so slightly. "It was my most important school. People have described Kukl as 'prog-punk' and it was more complex than most punk: we wouldn't write anything in 4/4 or use major keys, 'cos we considered that 'cheap'. But Kukl was pretty noisy and dark, really grim chords."
Kukl recorded two albums for Crass' record label, but rather than anarcho-punk, the band were on a kind of pagan magick primitivist trip (Kukl translates as 'sorcery'), achieving an intensity Björk compares to The Birthday Party and Einsturzende Neubauten. "Einar would wrap the mike cord around his neck and pull it until he fainted. Jump into the crowd and get bones broken. I still meet people who say Kukl was like a religious experience. Either that, or the worst thing they ever saw."
Björk was also hanging out with Medusa, a collective of artists and poets who were trying to stage Iceland's own version of surrealism, with street performances and all manner of aesthetic terrorism. "Medusa was into changing society, through shock."
By 1986, she and husband Thor Eldon had a baby and a one-bedroom flat. "This became the meeting point where all these people would hang out. Kukl had exploded, the record shop went bankrupt. So there was all this collision and energy, and a lot of parties!" One byproduct of this was Bad Taste Ltd, a company initially intended to publish literature but ultimately focusing on music. The name came from Picasso's declaration that "the worst enemy of creativity is good taste". In mid-Eighties Iceland, says Björk, "a lot of art was just ripped off the Scandinavians...Very good taste, but we just didn't think it was Icelandic." The other byproduct of the Medusa/Kukl milieu was The Sugarcubes, who first formed to play at parties, "just music to get drunk to."
The name was not an LSD allusion but inspired by the surrealists' fondness for swigging absinthe with a sugarcube between the teeth. "We used to go to Barcelona and bring back illegal home-brewed absinthe. It's definitely a drug. I remember us getting drunk on it and walking through a plate glass window into a club – six of us straight through the glass and onto the dancefloor."
According to Björk, The Sugarcubes was a joke band – something to get pissed to, take the piss in. "But then the world took us seriously!" An understatement. Elderly readers will remember the maelstrom of purple praise that swirled around the Cubes in the months following 'Birthday'. Björk says they had "no clue" that the song – knocked out in a few minutes "for one of those parties" – would have so much impact.
'Birthday' introduced the world to That Björk Emotion – heart-bursting euphoria, a serotonin supernova of exultation, the sensation she once described (talking about early jungle) as "fierce fierce fierce joy...sort of 'I'm just too happy, I want to explode'." You can trace this oceanic rush of pantheistic awe running through her work, from Debut's 'One Day' and 'Violently Happy' to Homogenic's 'Alarm Call'. In the case of 'Birthday', the feeling came partly from the energy of the Medusa/post-Kukl milieu and partly from the birth of her son, Sindri. "It was written about a month after that. Just the most fantastic thing that ever happened to me...And kids in the street thought it was my little brother, kept asking me when my mum was coming home. It was summer and completely magical, this cocoon of... just love. Excellent!"
The Sugarcubes remained UK gods through almost-hits like 'Deus' and debut album Life's Too Good. But 1989's Here Today Tomorrow Next Week! started the backlash. The band's B-52s-ish/Lene Lovich-like new wave novelty side came to the fore, and people complained about the way Björk kept getting-upstaged by Einar's irritating "rapping".
Björk says the Cubes didn't give the tiniest toss about the backlash. "Because we'd been doing some sort of terrorism in Iceland for eight years previously, we were perhaps guilty of a little bit of arrogance," she says drily. "If it was Kukl getting slagged maybe we'd have been devastated. But The Sugarcubes was more about taking the piss. Only two members of the band were into music as the most important thing in their lives. For the other four, it was poetry. We thought it was going to be a party band for a couple of months, then it just kept going and we were, 'We're going to do another album?! Er, okay'."
Despite these professions of non-careerism, the third Sugarcubes album, Stick Around For Joy (1992), showed clear signs of compromise: this was a tamed and toned-down Cubes, brandishing a would-be hit single titled, haha, 'Hit'. It was but, in touring the album, the band lost interest in itself and scattered.
Finally, Björk struck out for solo stardom. She had already made forays outside The Sugarcubes, hooking up with 808 State for two songs, 'Ooops' and 'Qmart', on 1991's Ex:El. "Just out of hunger for good stuff, I'd started going to clubs when I was in the UK, 'cos the rock gigs were just crap," she recalls. "Very quickly I fell for 808 State, 'cos they were more rhythmically complex." Another UK techno outfit she liked was bleep'n'bass pioneers LFO, whose Mark Bell would later collaborate with her on Homogenic.
"I was going up to Manchester a lot, going to raves and clubs with Graham Massey and the rest of 808. That sort of scene seems to last a couple of years – you're in a small room and everyone's on their toes, anticipating what song's going to be put on next. And I was spoilt because 808 State knew all the places to go. I don't remember specific clubs – when you're with a gang of people, they just take you around. Plus, maybe I wasn't particularly sober!"
Björk started working on tunes for a solo album with Massey as early as 1991, but the songs, 'Army Of Me' and 'The Modern Things', demo-recorded in a single day at Massey's home studio, had to wait until 1995's Post to be completed. Harsh and bombastic, the Massey collaborations didn't fit the emergent Debut's lush, organic soundworld.
With Soul II Soul's Nellee Hooper at the helm, Debut offered a seductive hybrid of contemporary groove science and fusion-esque jazzual flava, laced with exotica (Talvin Singh's tabla) and just enough traces of Björk's quirky-scary intensity to stave off home-listening diva blandness. It was a monstrous success, but many believers felt this new Björk was a tad too innocuously chic – a Sade for the Nineties. Björk agrees: "I felt guilty about a lot of things I did on Debut. I was so insecure and shy with that album, but on Post I was braver."
Hooking up with collaborators from different cutting edges (Massey, Tricky, Howie B), on Post she created a smorgasbord that ranged from the symphonic grandeur of 'Isobel' to the icy stealth of 'Possibly Maybe' and big band retro-romp of 'It's Oh So Quiet'.
The title Post was evocative. Beyond its obvious meaning (the record after Debut), it suggested the idea of mailing reports on her existential whereabouts back to Iceland. "Most of the songs are about moving to another country...being a bit rootless and dealing with it," Björk said at the time. But it also evoked the notion of post-everything music: a fusion of 20th century sounds, from Stockhausen to Hollywood musicals and the rhythms of London's post-rave club scene.
London, Björk's new home, was crucial. Jungle had exploded from the underground, and
Björk was a convert: trip hop, post-rock and other hybrids were bubbling. Post has everything of the exhilarating turmoil of London during 1993-95: London as a crossroads in the musical traffic between America, Europe and the Caribbean. "There was a sort of Immigrants United thing going on with Post. I felt very strongly I was an immigrant, so I related more easily to people who were immigrants too – like Talvin Singh. We're sort of English, but we're not."
London's intensity is creative, sparking new forms with its densely circulating swirls of people and ideas. But the city can be wearing. Ratcheted up several notches by her post-Post celebrity, London "was getting tricky for me by 1996," says Björk "It was like when I was 11 with my gold record. I'd walk in the streets and everybody's staring at me, and you kind of inflate to this big size. I think I'm pretty crap at being a celebrity." 1996 was her annus horribilis, bookended by her February freak-out at Bangkok Airport, where she knocked down an intrusive reporter and repeatedly bashed her head against the concrete, and the September nightmare of a letter bomb from a psycho fan (who objected to Björk's engagement to a black man, drum'n'bass star Goldie, and who committed suicide after mailing the package).
Björk initially downplays the idea of 1996 as one long horror show: "There were basically 180 days in between the two incidents that were actually okay." But almost immediately she contradicts herself by describing how whirlwind fame did her head in. "To an extent the letter bomb was the tip of the iceberg," she says. There was an incident in which Goldie and ex-lover Tricky brawled in a New York nightclub, and then the break-up with Goldie.
Leaving London with the intention of sorting out who she was ("am I English now?"), Björk went to her drummer's villa in Spain for a weekend, and ended up staying six months, using his studio to record Homogenic. "I cancelled everything, because I craved to just make music. That's what I was into it for in the first place, not going to fancy parties."
Where Post was a grab-bag of styles, Homogenic reacted against this eclecticism. "Post was totally sincere, but afterwards I felt a little bit guilty – like, 'Wait a minute, what is your identity?' I wanted to figure out what Icelandic music might be – does it even exist? The title was about the music being just this one thing: volcanic beats and strings from the Icelandic string octet. Plus my voice."
In 'Joga', Björk summed up her new sound with the lyric "emotional landscapes". Homogenic's massive distorted beats sound geological, like continental plates shearing against each other. It evokes Iceland as the Earth's foundry, the (c)ore beneath the crust. "I was trying to refer to the lava and volcanoes with those sounds. There's nothing pretty about Icelandic nature, it's very stark. Homogenic is a warrior album – with a heart, not weapons."
We speed past the fraught making of Dancer In The Dark (her clash of wills with director Lars von Trier resulting in a vow to never act again) and Selmasongs, and move on to Vespertine, definitely not a warrior album (its working title was Domestika).
"I wanted it to be a love affair to the home, about creating paradise under the kitchen table," says Björk. "It's about creating peaks without outside stimulants...The kind of peaks you reach reading a book." In other words, "the opposite to all the explosive stuff" Björk is most famous for.
'Vespertine' means things that come out in the dark or flourish in winter. 'Vespers' also means evening prayer, which fits the semi-religious feel of songs like 'Aurora' and the use of choir through much of the album. "Being Icelandic, I'm definitely not into religions, 'cos they're authoritarian," says Björk. "But having been a proud atheist all my life, I was becoming interested in falling on my knees and just being humble. And for some reason I was listening to a lot of music that was a bit like prayers."
Perhaps representing a new post-superstar phase of Björk's life, Vespertine is about craving sanctuary and solace. 'Hidden Places' has a smudgy glow, like you're hiding under a blanket and the light's coming through the same colour. 'Cocoon' is even more intimate: Björk and boyfriend make love in the night, half-asleep, in "a saintly trance"; they "faint back" into slumber, then Björk wakes up again and he's still inside her. Björk's vocal – so breathy it crackles and sparkles, as if covered in the furry spikes of crystals forming in solution – virtually pulls the listener under the sheets with her.
A record about tiny epiphanies, Vespertine is riddled with "microsonics": the ultra-minimal texture riffs and rhythmic tics you find in techno sub-genres 'glitch' and 'clickhouse', from where she's drawn her latest cast of collaborators – Matmos, Matthew Herbert, Thomas Knak, Martin Console.
"I fought hard to keep the album see-through, like crystal. Instead of programming one beat you have to program 40 micro-beats. They have to be really small so they don't fill up the gaps, unlike Homogenic with its massive doof-doof beats. It takes much more work to do humble records than arrogant ones!"
The album's primary sonic colours are crystalline and prismatic – and that's down to harp player Zeena Parkins, an instrument called the celeste, and a music box Björk had specially made from glass rather than wood ("so it sounds more plunky"), with her own tunes scored on big brass discs.
If you don't know the connotations of 'vespers', Vespertine sounds like a precious stone or some medieval craft of glasswork. "I was thinking hibernation and frozen things," says Björk. "The album is frozen, like crystals. It's a winter album." Her best yet, it reminds me of the jackfrost wonderland of Cocteau Twins circa 'In The Gold Dust Rush', of the bejewelled coldness of Siouxsie & The Banshees circa A Kiss In The Dreamhouse. The glittering sound fits the album's idea of inner riches, the treasure people keep hidden inside.
"After meeting the most exciting people in the universe and getting very stimulated," says Björk wryly, "I got interested in the idea that instead of the exciting people being the loud, flamboyant ones, maybe it's the people who don't say anything for a week and then whisper three words."
So is Vespertine Björk mellowing as she gets older (she'll be 36 in November)? A Björk no longer defined by the rush of "fierce, fierce joy", but a more Zen-like plateau of calm elation? "I'm not sure. Sometimes I think something's happening 'cos I'm getting older, and then a week later I wanna hear thrash metal!"
Post from SPIN'S ALBUMS OF THE NINETIES issue
by Simon Reynolds
Bjork's career has been a series of test cases to determine just how much strangeness a song can contain and still work as pop. Post is the sound of the Icelandic icon revelling in the possibilities opened up by the commercial success of Debut (her first solo album after quitting The Sugarcubes). Instead of playing it safe, Bjork compressed even more left-field weirdness (electronica's abstract textures, jazz-fusion's edgy tonality, dance music's rhythmic science) into her songs.
In retrospect, she'd felt that 1993's Debut had been somewhat tentative and tame: "I had very safe pop songs...and I was sort of shy and humble towards the whole thing," she said in 1995. "This time I felt more at ease." Shedding the boutique-and-soiree-friendly aspects of Debut that allowed some cynics to dismiss her as a Sade-for-the-'90s, Bjork took the three million copies Debut sold worldwide as license to experiment. She hooked up with multiple collaborators from differentcutting edges, and forged a schizo-eclectic tour-de-force. The orchestral grandeur of "Isobel," the technoid seduction of "Possibly Maybe," the industrial juggernaut of "Army of Me," and the big band retro-romp of "It's Oh So Quiet" each highlighted a different facet of her fascinatingly mutable identity. This fracturing of persona was further dramatized in a series of brilliantly inventive and wildly different videos which diversified Bjork's established space-pixie/child-sprite image.
"Post helped popularize the modern idea of an album as a
delicatessan," says Bjork-collaborator Graham Massey of techno outfit 808 State.
The two tracks co-written and co-produced by Massey--"Army Of Me" and "The Modern Things"--date from the Debut> era. Recorded in just one 1991 day at a Manchester home studio, the demo versions of "Army" and "Modern Things" were deemed too harshly inorganic to fit Debut's lush sound-world, but the songs were reactivated for Post.
The lyrical concept of "Army of Me" (Bjork in tough-love mode telling a self-pitying friend to shape up) was suggested by the implacable, monolithic groove, not vice versa. "A lot of vocalists just sit in the corner and get tortured over the lyrics," says Massey. " But being a formidable musician as well as a singer, Bjork develops melody before words--the lyrics all start out as this wordless mumbo-jumbo. That approach works very well with electronica, 'cause you're forming the music as you go along. We'd get a lot of material down on the computer, and then it was like dressing up--'try this, try that.'" In the "electronic playground," Bjork comes into her own, says Massey, because of "she's one of the few artists who has a real streak of innocence".
Alongside its creator's confidence and curiosity, Post reflects the creative turmoil circa 1994-95 of London, where Bjork had relocated from Iceland. Jungle was exploding out of the underground, and strange hybrids such as trip hop and post-rock were bubbling.
"If Bjork had moved somewhere else, like New York, it would have been a totally different sounding album," says Massey. Yet although it was mostly conceived in London, Post was actually recorded and mixed in the Bahamas at Nassau's famous Compass Point Studio. According to trip hopper Howie B, who engineered Post and co-wrote the frisky Latin house tune "I Miss You", "Despite being in this Caribbean vacation paradise, we only had one day off in three weeks. And because the studios have no windows, we might as well have been in London." Bjork did record some of her vocals with her feet in the ocean, though, thanks to a long microphone cord.
Two collaborations with Tricky--the sensuous tone-and-texture poem "Headphones" and the shatteringly intense "Enjoy" were recorded in the totally un-tropical climate of Iceland. "They were like rough demos," says Tricky, who later dated Bjork. "I kept waiting for her to say 'let's take them to an expensive studio'. But Bjork had the courage to release the songs as they were, and that still shocks me. She ain't scared of nothing." Of their first meeting, Tricky says "I fancied her straight away. The idea of us collaborating as artists wasn't even discussed, it was sort of already known. I thought she was mad cute, but didn't think anything would come of it-it was like she was on a different planet to me, a superstar."
But then the cool thing about Bjork is precisely the elegance with which she manages to straddle the murky underworld of marginal music and the overlit
overground of videogenic pop. Post represents Bjork's balancing act at its highwire pinnacle.
New York Times, 22 August 1992
by Simon Reynolds
Bjork exploded into public consciousness with her starburst vocals on 'Birthday', the 1987 debut single by the Sugarcubes. Björk’s ethereal voice and elf-girl image had critics and fans bewitched. Rave reviews predicted imminent world conquest for the Icelandic band. But it didn't happen, and the Sugarcubes never quite scaled the heights of their debut again. Over three albums, the group veered from moderately captivating dream pop to quirky, negligible new wave and gradually whittled down its cult following rather than expanding it.
Now Björk (who doesn't use her last name, Gutmundsdottir) has gone solo, as some devotees always fell she should. In recent interviews, the 27-year-old singer has professed that she never much cared for the alternative-rock qualities of the Sugarcubes' music. With Debut (Elektra, 9 61468-2; CD and cassette), she set out to combine her love of jazz with her ardor for rave music. To this end, she hooked up with Nellee Hooper of Soul II Soul, who produced most of the album and co-wrote five of the 11 songs. Mr. Hooper's rhythmic expertise provides the kind of groovy settings Björk's voice has always deserved. The collaboration has proved effective; the album is rapidly climbing Billboard's pop chart.
At its unleashed peak — as first heard on 'Birthday' — Björk's singing communicates an ineffable alloy of mixed-emotions, a mad jumble of astonishment, elation, rapture, dread, awe. Debut is drenched with just this goose-pimple-inducing stuff. The title of 'Violently Happy' captures the Björk effect perfectly: a gush and rush of euphoria, a tidal wave of oceanic feeling. Over the song's brisk house beats, Björk stammers as she struggles to express feelings of excitement so intense she seems on the brink of leaping out of her skin: "I'm driving my car too fast with ecstatic music on/I'm daring people to jump off roofs with me." In the end, she and Mr. Hooper resort to studio wizardry to gesture at inexpressible feelings, sampling one syllable and turning it into a stuttering vocal tic.
This breathless, insatiable lust for life pervades the album. In 'There's More to Life Than This', Björk gasps like she's choking on her own rising bliss, while the sultry 'Big Time Sensuality' has her vaulting from chesty growls to hyperventilating harmonics so piercing she sounds as if she's inhaled helium. But Björk is actually most effective when her vocal histrionics arc relatively restrained. The album's stand-out track, 'One Day', has a wonderful sense of tremulous, mounting anticipation that's just barely contained. Singing lines like "One day, you will blossom," Björk glides through a shimmering, brimming soundscape of undulating beats and twinkling keyboards.
Debut often recalls the early 70's jazz-fusion of bands like Weather Report. But where these fusionists combined jazz harmony with funk and acid rock, Björk marries her scat-vocalese and off-kilter melodies with the futuristic textures and programmed percussion of today's techno and acid house. In this vein, 'Aeroplane' is even more of a lush polyrhythmic jungle than 'One Day'. Its iridescent keyboards hark back to fusion players like Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul. 'Venus as a Boy' heads East for it’s exoticism: Talvin Singh's and Sureh Sathe's strings have the lavish, melodramatic quality of the orchestral soundtracks to Indian movie musicals.
For the most part, Debut is a collection of love songs. Some are inspired by flesh-and-blood passion (Björk croons the jazz standard 'Like Someone in Love', her voice cradled in harp and swoony strings). Others are about being in love with life or with her own bizarre fantasy world. There's one exception to the joyous vibe, the foreboding 'Human Behavior' (the first single off the album). Over an ominous rhythm track that sounds like thunderous tympani, Björk draws a disconcerting parallel between the beastliness of humanity and the bestiality of nature.
In the brilliant video, Björk plays the role of a little girl who lives in a sort of Disney noir forest. As in the best fairy tales, underneath the picaresque surface lurks the sinister and macabre. A cute teddy bear becomes a cruel, marauding beast (Björk ends up in his tummy), while the parallels between human and animal drives are underlined by juxtaposing a moth that flies blindly into a light bulb with Björk as a cosmonaut hurtling to the moon. The video plays on Björk's childlike image and the fact that she comes from Iceland, a country where a large percentage of the population believe that fairies really exist. Appropriately, Debut is an enchanting album.