bjork

Showing 18 posts tagged bjork

Hello!

Hey everyone! I’m honoured that I get to join in Hendrik’s party. This tumblr has featured some exciting and thoughtful music writing; I’ll try to keep up the good work.

I have too much to say about Björk. She has produced an enormous amount of material through her six solo albums (plus the one of Icelandic folk songs she did as a child and the one coming out), the Sugarcubes albums, her soundtracks, her remix and live albums, and B-sides and rarities. I cannot cover all of them. So my personal challenge will be to limit my posts to a manageable number and lengths. I have chosen ten themes to talk about, centering my discussions either on a single album or representative work. I’ll also post a few odds and bobs. You’ll see how it works out as I go along, and hopefully it won’t be too nutty and confusing.

That’s basically it. I’m a little nervous. Some of you might find what I’m saying too basic; others might find it too inside baseball. I’m a fan, but I’ll try to bring the critic’s gimlet eye to bear on her. And I’m probably going to get things wrong. This is the world of Björk as I see it, and all factual mistakes are the author’s alone.

To start you off, here’s a video of Björk from the 1994 Brit Awards telling you how to pronounce her name. (Hint: you are probably saying it wrong.)

Björk - “Big Time Sensuality”

Debut is such a debut.* Björk’s career is defined by the intersection of the organic and the technological - it’s surprising that she’s only now releasing an album of electronic music called “Biophilia.” But on Debut and her first releases, she pursued it as a narrative: Björk is the daughter of nature searching for the technological world’s heart. At the time of Debut, it mirrored her own departure from laidback, tiny Iceland and her immersion in the buzzy dance clubs of London. And it’s a positive journey. Debut does not see conflict between nature and technology; at least nothing that can’t be fixed by a few upbeat choruses. The journey gives the free spirit Björk excitement and delight as she discovers the enchantments of the wider world. Debut is wonder-full.

It was perfectly timed. While Björk’s later releases would step out of the zeitgeist, Debut and “Big Time Sensuality” (among tracks by other artists) helped open Gen Xers to utopian dance music. Back then, Gen Xers saw the world created by baby boomers as inherently hypocritical and corrupt. But technology, drugs and dance music were seen as a possible way to bring about a street-smart social paradise. Björk stormed the U.S. dance charts with her proclamation, “I don’t know my future after this weekend/And I don’t want to.” After a decade of hip-hop and dance pop songs describing the elaborate and conservative social codes of “da club,” it’s refreshing to remember that dance clubs used to be idealized as places of political, moral and social freedom.

In the iconic video for “Sensuality,” Björk unself-consciously dances (predating Robyn by over a decade) along a moving truck as it drives through some banal New York City streetscapes. But Björk’s alien beauty, rapturous expressions and personal electricity elevate the video into the opening chapter of a movie. This is the beginning; here the magic starts. Can’t you feel it? Meanwhile, the synths boom and lift, soaring and swirling over Björk’s voice, inviting her to join them. Her voice growls and purrs, trying to hold back all of the childish delight it feels just being in this place of possibilities. It ranges around, up and down, confused by the unexpected pleasure coming from every side. Her voice is ecstasy. She sings, “It takes courage to enjoy it!” These are words, my friends, that are no longer possible on a club hit. Debut and “Sensuality” might be nearly twenty years old, but they still punch with an over-the-top exuberance you know you’ve been missing all these years.

 *Yeah, yeah. She had a solo album when she was a kid and there’s the Sugarcubes. But this was her real introduction to the world.

Björk - “Big Time Sensuality (Live)”

Some early footage of Björk performing “Sensuality.” Back then, her eyebrows were a little out of control and she is wearing an off-the-rack, unflattering party dress (the couture came later). Everything else is on point. If you’ve had a bad Monday, stick around to hear how she sings “I just don’t want to/I just don’t want to” at 3:35 or so. Yay!

Björk and PJ Harvey - “Satisfaction (Live at the Brit Awards 1994)”

At the age of sixteen, this performance encapsulated everything I adored about pop music, and it still does. It’s impossible for me to talk about it; just watch it.

Track

Enjoy

Artist

Björk

Album

Post

Björk - “Enjoy”

Both Post and Debut are very “spastic” (Björk’s term). They jump from genre to genre between and within songs. Trip-hop beats nestle next to orchestral strings and mambo drums. Trying to describe what is exactly happening, musically, in “I Miss You” (whistles, saxophones, tabla drums, organs) makes it sound like a joke rather than an ecstatic ode to hopeful expectations. It’s this heterogeneity and novelty lust that characterizes Post. And it’s an approach to sound we’ve lost. While several pop artists in the nineties approached music as a postmodern smorgasbord – think of Basement Jaxx, Beck, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness – pop music has become increasingly interested in nailing one specific sound and never deviating from it. As SFJ notes, Daft Punk are the avatars of our current state of pop, not Basement Jaxx - and certainly not Post-era Björk. (Note the name Post: it’s not just about mail; it’s also about being postmodern.)

This makes it strange to consider Post in terms of Björk’s career. While Post is universally loved – a few years ago, Stereogum hired several of indie’s big stars to make a cover album for it – almost no contemporary artists seem particularly influenced by it. The covers illustrated this dynamic. While everyone involved gushed over the album, the covers tended toward the overly ornate and fiddly (likely a consequence of hiring a bunch of ornate and fiddly indie artists). Most of the contributors seemed to read the album as a Vespertine warm-up. They saw only a maze of sounds intricately arrayed, and they generally passed on replicating its immediate joy. Pattern is Movement did a version of “Enjoy” that seems to have ignored several of the song’s key lines, like “look at the speed out there/It magnetizes me to it.” Björk chose most of her album’s collaborators after partying with them in London. I can’t imagine how you could party to this cover album.

Listening to the original of “Enjoy” reveals the key problem to covering Björk. So much of Björk’s artistry is anchored in her iconic, immediately expressive and virtuosic voice. Covers of her work often fail because few can approach the instinctive command of melody and phrasing that she has, and her vocal quality is the point of all of her songs. The melody of “Enjoy” is simple enough that I can sing it. But listen to the “there” in that first “Look at the speed out there.”  Björk turns the word around, shaping its bright, sharp curves and adding a slight ripple, before cutely panting from exertion. As the verses marches on, she bursts further and further outward into the cave echo-augmented belting of “ENJOY! ENJOY!” This is the opposite of Auto-tune.

Again and again on Post, she builds from the intimacy of verses that sit on your ear. From there, her voice slides up a scale until she hits an explosive chorus. This is a punk artist’s vocal interpretation of pop’s basic trick; Björk’s sweeter version of grunge’s whisper-to-a-scream. But it’s the key that holds the insanity of the instrumentals together. Björk’s voice is the wide-eyed adventurer from Debut, venturing into the sonic novelty of Post. By making it easily approachable and immediately understood, we follow her into its overblown thickets. “This is really dangerous,” she sings on “Cover Me,” “but it’s worth all the effort. Cover me!”

Fifteen years later, Post seems ambitious, engaged and excited by the world, but also determined to stir mighty emotions in the listener. It sounds too weird and happy to be dated. While I may love other Björk albums more intimately – Homogenic and Medulla are my favourites – Post is the album for everyone. It is pure pop, pure delight.

Björk attacks a reporter, Bangkok 1996.

Long before Britney and her golf umbrella, Björk claws at reporter Julie Kaufmann in Bangkok’s airport. It wasn’t her last attack, either. She attacked another reporter in an Australian airport in 2008. Lesson? Do not talk to Björk after a long haul flight.

I could watch this all day. Anyone have a gif?

Track

Possibly Maybe (Lucy Mix)

Artist

Björk

Album

Telegram

Björk - “Possibly Maybe (Lucy Mix)”

Telegram is no one’s favourite Björk album (Christgau included). And its middling success on the charts is probably partly responsible for the ridiculous and tsunami-like Björk industry of endless remixes, B-sides and special editions. But it does illustrate the flip-side of why her work is nearly impossible to cover. As long as you have Björk’s voice and melodies in there, you can probably crank out a decent tune. When choosing my favourite Björk songs, I often find it difficult to choose between remixes or the original. For instance, I prefer Telegram’s version of “Possibly Maybe” to the one on Post. A line like “I suck my tongue/In remembrance of you” sounds more appropriate emerging from the drugged out, half-asleep sensuality of the Lucy mix. But either way, it’s her velvety delivery that carries the song’s key charm.

Björk’s relative egolessness about having people change and manipulate her work has encouraged her to work with numerous artists, including Tricky, Nellee Hooper, Thom Yorke, Matmos, Antony, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Timbaland, Rahzel, Talvin Singh, Graham Massey and Brian Chippendale. A few have become integral to her life as an artist, like Michel Gondry and Mark Bell. For Björk, the collaborations serve as a vital counterpoint to solitary work. “I work so much on my own,” she says, “which I enjoy very much. 90% of every album is me editing on a computer or writing, walking outside writing melodies, or writing lyrics.” Collaborating lets her “just [merge] with somebody who is hopefully quite different from me.”

This way of working – and the number of men she has worked with – has produced some negative perceptions of her work. In a 2008 Internet post, Björk accused an Icelandic newspaper of inaccuracy and sexism. According to her, they had reported Valgeir Sigurðsson had produced and written most of the instrumentals on Vespertine.* She corrected them: he had done neither; he was a sound engineer and programmer on the album. The writing and producing was done by her. The mistake prompted her to generalize: “it feels like still today after all these years people cannot imagine that woman can write, arrange or produce electronic music. i have had this experience many many times that the work i do on the computer gets credited to whatever male was in 10 meter radius during the job.”

Anyone who has read Alex Ross’s profile of Björk in the New Yorker can’t doubt her control over her work. But while other artists work exclusively in solitude with instruments and computers (or imagine they do), Björk is unapologetic in enjoying having other people to work over ideas. Björk plays other musicians.

Her collaborations are another example of Björk’s narrative of exploration and return. Creation begins in a place of solitude, but collaboration is the way to bring it into the world of ideas, to test it and make it a weirder thing than one could have originally imagined. Collaboration changes you just enough so that you can return back home to understand what that original solitude meant. It won’t lead you in the pure direction you intended, but that’s only a good thing. Purity of invention is overrated.

*It later turned out that Björk was a little confused about the facts: the newspaper had quoted someone who had suggested Sigurðsson was the producer and writer, rather than making the argument themselves.

Ane Brun – “Jóga (Live at Polar Music Prize, 2010)”

If you’ve been following this blog since the beginning of the week, you might have expected my post for Homogenic to come here. So far, I’ve been working through Björk’s discography in order. But for various reasons, I’ve decided to move that to the end of the week’s posts. In its stead, watch this performance of Ane Brun performing “Jóga” at the Polar Music Prize ceremony celebrating Björk’s accomplishments (in another video, you can see that the award itself looks like a glassed-in diorama). I’ve said that Björk is hard to cover, but Brun has a rich enough timbre that she can make this song believably hers. While Björk’s version is powerful and uplifting, Brun’s is delicate and heartfelt. It may not be to everyone’s tastes (the Youtube comments are divided), but it points in the direction of the only way to properly cover Björk: by bringing one’s own full-throttled eccentricity to it.