Artist Spotlight: Björk

Björk Guðmundsdóttir has been a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, arranger, and producer since she was young. Her first album, Björk, was released in 1977, when she was barely twelve-years-old. During her teens and early twenties, Björk was part of several music bands in Iceland. Most notable of these was rock band the Sugarcubes, which was active between 1986 and 1992. They released three albums to…some success, but Björk was getting restless to do her own thing and her own thing did not include being in a rock band. Instead, she wanted to make music that was poppy and dance-y, but coming at it from her own direction, with off-kilter melodies, different instrumentation, and a vocal style that would be hers alone.

Debut: 5 July 1993

So that 15 years of musical output? Forget all of that; this is the start of Björk. Consisting mostly of songs that she had composed years prior, this album encompasses a variety of styles while serving as a clean break from her previous work. So, while not technically a “debut” Björk, it is a personal and artistic one. Most notably, she overtly rejects both her rock past and the rock movements that have asserted themselves in the USA and the UK. Instead, her music joyously embraces house music and the London underground dance scene, while sprinkling a bit of jazz and ambient electronic music. While rather eclectic as individual pieces of music, taken as a whole, it kind of makes me imagine people clubbing late into the night, even when they get tired, and then finally getting kicked out of the club to find out that it is 9:00 in the morning…I mean, not that I would know.

To be honest, my 11-year-old self heard Big Time Sensuality and was not having any of it. I was only starting to dip my toes into liking music and preferred rock music. I didn’t care for Björk’s elderly child voice and that arty dance music came across as really gay and, thus, bad. I am not proud of feeling that way, but it was what it was. While I would get over that stupidity within a few years, it would be about nine years before I actually checked out this album. In the meantime, the surprise success of Debut may have (let’s just say that it did) help to usher in the popularization of dance music the United States.

The first song on the album is Human Behavior, a song that Björk supposedly composed when she was a teenager, but didn’t feel fit in with the punk rock style. It has a sort of 60s big band jazz timpani beat as its bass and foundation, with synth strings and synth guitars providing extra flavor. Björk’s singing style is already well-established, with her casual apathy towards rhyming and her less-than consistent attempts to stay rhythm. What I noticed, when I finally got around to really actually listening to the song, was how Björk is singing in a different key from the music during the first half. Sure, technically, they could both be in the key of A minor or D minor, but just hum the main note that she sings and the main note that the timpani plays. Not the same, are they? It is not until she starts repeating “Human Behavior” that she starts to sing in A as well.

Human Behavior – 4:26

Post: 13 June, 1995

Just under two years after her debut, Björk returns with a vengeance. With the surprise success of Debut, she could have tried to do the same thing to maintain the success. Instead, she tries something more ambitious. Building upon the dance-pop of her first album, and using more songs that she composed back before Debut, she incorporates more ambient music and elements of the British intelligent dance music scene as well as more non-synth instruments. There is more noise and atypical melodies.

I cannot say whether 13-year-old me would have liked this album, but 14-year-old me would have certainly liked parts of it, particularly Army of Me. It is noisy, hefty, and aggressive like some of the big beat acts that are totally coming out of England and convincing Americans that electronic dance music is not just for homosexuals. Cutting edge me was supposedly all over this stuff, yet it would still take me about seven years to come around to hearing it. Twenty-year-old me was totally into the entire album. Well, most of it; Enjoy was a step too far for me.

Army of Me – 4:27

Homogenic: 22 September, 1997

The follow-up to Post’s sprawl is a pull-back. Not necessarily stripped down, but somewhat more streamlined. In an attempt to mirror Iceland’s simultaneous embrace of nature and the high tech, the music is primarily organic instrumentation over electronic percussion that is sometimes mildly distorted. As a result, while the album is still products of the 90s like the previous two, the music sounds like it is attempting to reach out beyond the 90s; not necessarily towards the future, but anywhere…to the unknown and unknowable. I don’t know how much the recording process was affected by that…uh…stalker incident a month into it, but the aftermath probably had an influence.

An example of this grasping is the final track, All Is Full of Love. After the happiness and fearsome determination of the previous two tracks, the finale brings about a dreamlike whirlwind of ambient processed strings, an accordion, harps and…uh…a farting bassline. While a lot of people seem to prefer the music video version with the percussion and clearer bass foundation, but I prefer the more unsettled and untethered nature of the album version. Except for the farting bassline and faint pattern in the string section, there is little in the way of a distinct rhythm, which makes Björk’s occasional free form vocal rhythms sound even freer than normal. The lack of conventional pop song structure also helps. And with no resolution in sight, the song just fades out and the album ends.

All Is Full of Love – 4:33

Selmasongs: 18 September, 2000

Björk had never really wanted to act before, but made an exception for Lars von Trier’s musical drama Dancer in the Dark. It was a movie that I liked, but have no intention of watching again. It was also an experience that Björk disliked and wanted to avoid. In any case, this experience brought us Selmasongs, the soundtrack album.

With its primary focus on orchestral instrumentation and arrangement, it is unclear to me exactly how much input Björk has in the creation of this album. That said, there are a few elements that suggest that it is meant to be its own thing, separate from the movie. For one thing, quite a few songs are re-written and re-arranged, with the vocals from actors replaced. While Björk has never shied away from including covers in her albums, all references to The Sound of Music have been removed, making this her shortest solo album yet at 32 minutes.

One song that Björk apparently had total control over during production is New World. A reprise from the brass heavy Overture (which she also has sole production credit) from the introduction, this one includes her vocals, synth percussion, and strings. This instrumentation allows for a greater build to the bursting climax that overtakes her vocals that gradually fade into echoes. In terms of singing, I don’t know whether she had total control over it, given that the lyrics rhyme and she generally stays on rhythm. Then again, she sometimes does both on songs from other albums.

New World – 4:22

Vespertine: 27 August, 2001

It took nearly four years and a movie later, but Björk came back with…well, not a vengeance. Composed during her acting stint, Vespertine served as a gentle escape from the trials of working under Lars von Trier, a step back from the confrontational starkness of Homogenic, and a celebration of a new romantic relationship with Matthew Barney. While it keeps using classical instruments, there is more of a light touch, with a greater prominence of harps and music boxes. The percussion is less overtly electronic, relying mostly on recordings of household sounds. So while Homogenic was reaching out, Verspertine is like an intimate hug. Sometimes uncomfortable, unsure, or awkward, but always intimate. Even when she is yelling, it is less yelling at the listener and more yelling into the listener’s soul.

After much prodding from members of certain Radiohead message board, 20-year-old me finally broke down and bought a Björk album. Since this was the most recent one at the time, I picked this one. It took me quite a bit of time to get into it and I am not sure that I even started to really like it until after I bought Post about a month later, which I probably should have bought first. However, there were a few songs that I enjoyed from the outset. One of them was An Echo, a Stain, probably the most eerie and atmospheric song on the album. I just love the choral ambience, the enveloping dissonance, and the sort of snapping trip-hop percussion.

An Echo, a Stain – 4:04

Medúlla: 31 August, 2004

Two and a half-years after dipping my toes into Björk’s main discography, I am pretty much all caught up. So it is time to check out her new album, Medúlla. 9/11 took place barely two weeks after the release of her previous album and Medúlla is an attempt to find the essence of humanity that she feels has been rejected by institutionalized hatred of the different. So, this album is based mostly on humanity. Whether natural, affected, or processed, almost all of the sounds on the songs come from the human voice.

While some of the older albums would have appealed to me if they were released later, I feel like I would have actually liked this one a lot more if it were released when I was a high school senior or college freshman, all into a cappella and hoping to actually get into one of those troupes. That didn’t work out and my interest had waned by the time that I graduated. I really like the first song and the second is fine, but the rest have sections that sound incomplete, unrealized, hollow, or just awkward. It would sound no different from some of the more high-quality a cappella cover acts floating around youtube today: well done, but lacking a real core and atmosphere.

In any case here is the first song on the album, which is the one that I liked the most. I guess that I like it mostly because it is not all that busy. The singers providing the main backing melody sing extended chords, lending weight to her most indulgent use of what some call the devil’s interval. Everything else, the beatboxing, the breathing sounds, the bassline, all of that is meant to supplement the long chords and the lyrical melody. I eventually warmed to some of the later songs, but none of them can match this opener.

The Pleasure Is All Mine – 3:27

Drawing Restraint 9: 25 July, 2005

For years, people have wondered whether Björk was Asian. Her response to this was to…go to Japan?? Oh, as an Occidental Guest. Well, that clears things up. In any case, Björk briefly changed her mind about acting in movies to…uh…star in a film called Drawing Restraint 9, part of some…project that Matthew Barney was doing. The film is about…uh…whale hunting? I don’t know. You can hunt it down on youtube if you want to figure it out. She also helped to make the soundtrack.

In any case, the music…it is what it is. Influenced by Japanese elements and whatnot, it is based mostly as accompaniment to the imagery and is mostly devoid of singing to match the near lack of dialog in the movie. The music is fine, though not really something that I would listen to a lot. Here is an example of an instrumental track, primarily bells and a…harpsichord?

Ambergris March – 3:56

Volta: 1 May, 2007

Okay, now were are talking. While not quite returning to Björk’s 90s-style of artpop, Volta is a more overtly accessible work than her stuff since Homogenic. There is a little less of an overt theme to this album than previous works, other than the occasional dip into “tribal” sounds. There is also the occasional lifting of music from Drawing Restraint 9. I was a little disappointed that her collaboration with the drummer from Lightning Bolt did not lead to a song with wilder drumming, but whatever. I quite enjoyed this overall.

Innocence is probably my favorite song off of the album. A noisy start-stop dance track with some vocal sample that may have been used in a Wu Tang Clan track. Though it occasionally suffers from that lack of mooring core like some of the stuff from Medúlla, it more than makes up for it elsewhere. And then it fades into a seemingly unrelated coda that is more a lead-in to the next track.

Innocence – 4:29

Biophilia: 5 October, 2011

Concern for the environment, nature, and the cosmos inspired the creation of this app album. Using both classical instruments and instruments that she…uh…made up….song and time signatures sometimes find themselves secondary to cycles of nature in…okay, I have no idea what that meant, but the music is really good. Sometimes the songs seem to split into different distinct sections, such as my favorite track.

Mutual Core at first seems based primarily on a quiet organ playing at a random time signature…Wikipedia says 17/8, but I have no way of knowing. A small bit of percussion that sounds like a marble rolling around in a drum creeps up until both are replaced by an ambient scream and that kind of breakcore/gabba percussion where the drums are distorted to the point of making a fuzzy buzzing sound.

Mutual Core – 5:28

Vulnicura: 20 January, 2015

At some point between the previous album and this one, Björk and Matthew Barney broke up. While she had written songs about former boyfriends before, this dissolution shook her greatly, and it influenced the entire album. Composing and arranging string sections was a way for her to keep busy and, as such, the music (often with electronic percussion) sometimes seems like a call-back to Homogenic, the album that she made before her relationship with Matthew Barney. Sometimes melodically accessible, sometimes not, the music runs with more emotional logic than Biophilia’s tight planning. While Björk has made long songs before, seven of the nine songs run over six minutes, leading to her longest solo album yet at nearly an hour’s length.

One of the more overt callbacks to Homogenic is Family, though not exactly. An aggressive bass drum breaks up the tense and wavering ambience of the string section, and the music builds to the point of sounding like it is twisting itself into knots and is about to tear itself apart. After a skittering string section that sounds like someone being dragged along, the second half of the song brings in ambient waves and strings raining down. Singing free of rhythm and structure, Björk’s vocal melodies sometimes sound like it is trying to mimic All Is Full of Love, but not quite getting there. This is not a whirlwind; this is an ocean that destroys all love.

Family – 8:00