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"State of emergency - how beautiful to be"

Class C

Main Category: Art Rock
Also applicable: Avantgarde, Electronica, Dance Pop, Mood Music
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Bjork fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Bjork fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Bjork (I omit the umlaut over "o" due to possible encoding problems, but that doesn't mean you are entitled to do likewise, rest of the world) is one of the very few Nineties' artists who have managed to establish a following both among the "mass" (selling quite a few copies of her albums over the years) and the "elite" (having built up quite an artistic reputation) section of the population, and, in that respect, is probably the closest to being an 'objectively' important artist of that decade. Whether you like her or not - and there are many who shiver at the very perspective of liking someone like that - one thing you gotta admit: there's something special about her, and it ain't hard to feel that.

In fact, it's hard to find an area in which Bjork wouldn't be special. She's got an untrivial country of origin - Iceland isn't exactly the kind of country that's notorious for its Major Artists since the days of the sagas. She's got, er, well, an untrivial look to her, being small, pimply, and fragile. On the other hand, behind that small, pimply and fragile surface is a will-o'-steel that could easily compete with some of the most ferocious, bloodthirsty Vikings of a thousand years ago, and a weird, unusual voice that can be soft and vulnerable as a little flower one minute and then hoarse, harsh and powerful as a female lion the next one. It is this stark contrast between the Soft and the Hard that is her main force, and watching her explore the possibilities of this contrast - which she's been doing from the very beginning of her "serious" career - can be a cause for excitement even if the exploration isn't backed by anything else (which it usually is).

Bjork has often been criticized by living in a puffed-up, unrealistic, and pretentious "la-la land" of her own making, but these are actually her good sides - I mean, c'mon, given the choice between Bjork and Melissa Etheridge/Alanis Morrisette, which one would you take? Perhaps a more serious accusation would be that Bjork's intentionally chosen formula does not give her any possibility to "grow up" - as late as 2001 she was still using the "childlike" approach to even the most serious of matters. However, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, and, once again, it only works to her advantage. The slightly naive, "starry-eyed" approach she's using throughout helps the music avoid that whiff of pretentiousness and preachiness that so many other female (and male) performers just can't get rid of. Whenever Bjork is singing about love, or life, or death, or religion, or whatever the heck else, she manages to avoid banalities simply by choosing a unique form of communicating these banalities (not that her communication is limited to banalities, not at all). As far as I'm concerned, only once - on Homogenic, perversely enough, a usual fan favourite - did she intentionally transgress that formula, and the results were, if not disastrous, then at least less satisfying than usual.

Her unique voice is her one most recognizable trademark, of course, but it must be noted that it's not just her tone or range that matters: even more significant is her refusal to conform to the conventional understanding of "singing". In fact, the closest analogy that I can come up with at the moment would be Tim Buckley, that legendary figure who fucked commercial success in favour of being able to use his vocal cords the way he wanted - which was, "free-form". Bjork can sing a "regular" melody all right, and when she deems it necessary to conform to the requirements of rhythm and rhyme, she does it, but when she doesn't, she doesn't. And when she doesn't, her singing takes on the characteristics of a complex jazzy guitar solo rather than anything else - you watch it rise and fall, stretch and burst, fade out and fade in, shriek and whisper, and when she's at her best, not a single one of these twists feels out of place. She's got complete mastery of her voice, and, while this kind of approach may not be for everyone (particularly not for the uninitiated - lots of "unprepared" movie critics took her down a peg or two for her "screaming" in Dancer In The Dark, probably thinking this was due to inexperience rather than to intentional will), a little bit of patience and goodwill, I believe, will be enough for anyone to be bowled over.

She's also willing to take chances as far as musical backing goes. Her former band, the Sugarcubes, in which she had to share lead vocals with male band member Einar Orn, preferred being all over the place (with a particular emphasis on R'n'B and funk, though) rather than searching for new musical directions, but once she went solo, her perky little Icelandic nose managed to sniff out where the gold mine was: electronics, and since then, her main hobby has been merging electronic patterns with pretty much every outside influence she could lay her hand on, most notably classical, Eastern motives, and a bit of World Music for a change. Working with some of the most knowledgeable and experienced people in the business - since the early Nineties, her primary place of "musical residence" has been the London club scene, after all - she manages to evade the "bandwagon-jumping" tag, even if she obviously did jump on that bandwagon, simply by making the best use of the electronic formula and by successfully fusing it with her own, totally unparalleled personality. And even when she's intentionally willing to tone down that personality, as on Telegram, essentially an album of remixes done by her colleagues in the business, the results can be fascinating due to extreme quality control.

As it often happens with experimental artists, not every attempt of hers is successful: there's plenty of things to dislike in Bjork's catalog, even if they usually vary depending on the listener's general tastes. Some songs can be too long, some can be too limited (just hanging upon one simple groove), some too serious to be much fun, some overdoing the dissonance stuff. But at least give her the props for trying out so much stuff. I couldn't really call her output "diverse", because she's got a distinct style and formula, and everything she gets immediately receives the Bjork Approved Stamp on it, but so far, she has never yet descended into self-parody, and that's a major achievement.

As a typical advocate of the "golden middle", my favourite moments in Bjork's output are her most "accessible" ones - that is, when there is a fair balance between conventionalism and innovation, as on the Sugarcubes' brilliant debut and on Bjork's own equally brilliant Debut. These are the records I would easily recommend to any novice; later, proceed from there at your own risk. More dedicated fans would probably choose Post or Homogenic as the highest points - I personally see these albums as slightly less balanced and, at times, openly boring, but essentially it all depends on whether you're willing to endorse Bjork as an emotional-spiritual guru or not. I am definitely not; I much prefer to see Bjork as that one little girl with an exceptionally big head and lots of childlike/adolescent fantasies presented in the friendliest way imaginable. But hey, that's just my conception. Choose yours.



(released by: THE SUGARCUBES)

Year Of Release: 1988

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

Too good to waste it not playing and singing in a post-post-post-punk post-post-post-dadaist weirdo goofband, you mean?

Best song: COLDSWEAT

Track listing: 1) Traitor; 2) Motorcrash; 3) Birthday; 4) Delicious Demon; 5) Mama; 6) Coldsweat; 7) Blue Eyed Pop; 8) Deus; 9) Sick For Toys; 10) Fucking In Rhythm & Sorrow; 11) Take Some Petrol Darling; 12) Cowboy; 13) I Want...; 14) Dragon (Icelandic); 15) Cat (Icelandic); 16) Coldsweat (remix); 17) Deus (remix).

The first full-fledged album to feature the real artistic presence of Björk (if we exclude that odd, and probably impossible to find, album of cover tunes she recorded in 1977 at age eleven) is cute, messy, chaotic, totally pointless, and absolutely marvelous. Since the Sugarcubes evolved from Einar Orn and Björk's earlier project, the art-punk band KUKL, this is certainly not the kind of music you'd expect from Björk herself. It's not dance music (although many of the numbers are certainly danceable per se) and it's definitely a far cry from electronica (although synthesizers are featured prominently in supportive functions, but it's still guitar-oriented for the most part).

What kind of music this is is not too easy to define, though. From a pure technical standpoint, it looks like the Sugarcubes wanted to play everything, from tricky Cocteau Twins-like atmospheric chants to Fifties' boogie; what actually does unite all of those songs is the distinct clash between the personalities of the two lead vocalists - Björk and Einar Orn, of course. Both of them are definitely Germanic, and if there's anything that they really remind me of it's gotta be certain early tracks of Amon Düül II: the "mystic music" plus "odd Teutonic guy coldly spewing out his words vs. quirky Teutonic gal with impenetrable intonations" pairing is very much the same. Listen to Wolf City and goddammit if these guys didn't take a good look at it, too, or else the odd coincidences would simply have to be explained by something like "The Common Teutonic Spirit". That would be Germanic pop for you - seems like Icelandic pop doesn't stray too far away from German pop in the end.

Of course, Björk's personality is much more interesting than Einar's. Einar may seem inventive, but when we get to the bottom of things he is just a goofy guy with a pretty limited set of tricks; in fact, he can become annoying by the third track or so, just because he's getting way too predictable all the time. Fortunately, he is nowhere near as annoying (or should I just plain say "totally uninteresting"? I hate the word 'annoying'!) as he is on the following album, because at this time he is not intent on overshadowing Björk's vocalizing where it is the centerpoint of the song.

And as for the haunting Icelandic pixie... well, she's got her vocal style well established on here (after all, she'd been involved in music-making for more than a decade now - I realize that doesn't work the same way for Sammy Hagar, but that's the difference between a mysterious Viking witch and a brick-thick cock rock loving guy). Already on the second track you get to hear her 'childish' intonations for all they're worth, and already on the third track you get to revel in the glory of her trademark lion roar. The contrast works good. And don't forget the word 'childish' either. If there's an overall spiritual unity to most of the songs on Life's Too Good, it's their "childishness". Many people have dumped shit on the lyrics throughout the album, yet they actually work for the goals they're intended for - it's, like, the universe presented through the eyes of a child, maybe a deranged child at that. Huh? 'Deus does not exist, but if he does, he lives above me in the fattest largest cloud up there?' And coupled with Björk's "I-want-to-seem-like-my-age-matches-my-height" intonations, too?

So it's an amazingly naive album, with maybe just a couple more serious intentions; that's what makes it work, that's what distinguishes the Sugarcubes from all of their innumerable influences, be it the Birthday Party, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure, the Krautrock bands, insert whoever you want here. Many of the tracks here are "dark" on the outside, but there's no real serious darkness within; it's more like those creepy stories that kids tell each other before sleep to spook each other off. Altogether, the experience is more uplifting than depressing.

And besides, the songs themselves are swell - pretty much every single one of the first ten tracks ranks with the best stuff of Björk's solo career. Since the songs are all short, yet often pack a whole load of ideas, I'll just pinpoint my favourites if you're interested. 'Motorcrash', maybe based on a childhood reminiscence and maybe just reflecting a particularly pervert state of mind, starts out similar to the Police's 'Rehumanize Yourself' and never really lets go with its fast rhythm, Björk's passionate 'riding on a bicycle, I saw a motorcrash...' narrative (as if she just saw the catastrophe and imitates the child's excited, breathless account of the events) and Einar's - for once - really clever quasi-"news guy" text insertions. 'Birthday', capitalizing on Björk's exclusive talents, tells the gloomy story of a five-year old girl who 'keeps spiders in her pocket, collects fly wings in a jar' and wonderfully contrasts her shakey, insecure (but again, so goddamn excited!) vocals in the verses with the lion roar of the chorus, worthy of a weight-losing Aretha Franklin indeed.

'Coldsweat' is the album's darkest song - perhaps the only one that can leave you somewhat, uh, decomposed, what with that awesome build-up in the chorus ('here is hot meat, this is metallic blood, this is hot meat, this is... OPEEEEEN SWEAAAAAAAAT!') and merciless guitar attack - prepare to be left in awe as these funky-wunky overdubs kick in right at the perfect place, like an echo to Björk's vocal. climax. A truly unsettling number, but nevertheless a terrific one, plus I can't fit it in the overall concept, and that means there is a concept because there's no concept without an exception. 'Blue Eyed Pop' seems to borrow its main guitar line from King Crimson's 'Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part II', but it's actually more of a dance number (not to mention its references to disco dancing) and entirely guitar-based at that. No memorable vocal melody to boot, but the guitar stylings fully redeem for that.

'Deus' is the magnum opus - the album's longest song and the one with the most well-expressed "kiddy message" of all (see the quoted lyrics above). The endearing 'deus, deus... does not exist... deus, deus... does not exist' coda of the song has too much "head-sticking" potential to be ignored, but pretty much all of Björk's vocal stylizations are memorable, and the "duet" with Einar ('I once met him...') is hilarious. 'Sick For Toys', then, is something of a cross between the gloomiest Goth of the Cure and the mystical rave-ups of the early U2, and Björk's flying 'sick, sick, sick for toys!!!' yelp is enough to forget the exaggerated accent of Einar (is this guy pretending or what? He can't, uh, not speak English to such an extent!). And my last favourite is perversely called 'F---ing In Rhythm And Sorrow', although the lyrics themselves don't have any direct references to performing acts of copulation (okay, just a few references to naked men). It's like a Fifties' style rockabilly number in reverse, or something, with the album's catchiest refrain, too.

The record lets me down a bit for the last several tracks, where the Amon Düül II influences are too blatant to ignore: a bunch of messy feedback-laiden rockers, some of them sung in Icelandic to make the atmosphere even gloomier. Actually, I have the re-issue of the album, so I'm not sure where the original ends and the bonus tracks begin - I'm assuming that the dance remixes of 'Open Sweat' and 'Deus' are definitely bonuses, but what about the Icelandic-sung 'Dragon' (the band's cheesy take on Norse death metal? Einar sounds laughable on that one, although Björk's moody cooing in the background saves the day again) and 'Cat' (the band's cheesy take on twist? Still great for a good-spirited laugh, though!)? Don't know about these.

In any case, there's enough prime material on the album, and it's no wonder it established the band's reputation as, arguably, the most well-known Icelandic rock band of all time. Too weird, considering that neither of the two records that followed it came anywhere near close to recapturing the same level of fun. And 'fun' is the key word here. Maybe 'neurotic fun' would be more like it. Or perhaps 'juvenile neurotic fun'. Nah, let's make it "intelligent juvenile neurotic fun". That explains the 13, because I can't really think of any other record matching that exact summary.



(released by: THE SUGARCUBES)

Year Of Release: 1989

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Einar, get the fuck out of here. I want pixie music, not madhouse music.

Best song: REGINA

Track listing: 1) Tidal Wave; 2) Regina; 3) Speed Is The Key; 4) Dream TV; 5) Nail; 6) Pump; 7) Eat The Menu; 8) The Bee; 9) Dear Plastic; 10) Shoot Him; 11) Water; 12) A Day Called Zero; 13) Planet; 14) Hey; 15) Dark Disco 1; 16) Hot Meat.

Legend has it the Sugarcubes actually wanted to surpass the success of their debut, but in my opinion - which happens to resemble, if not coincide with, the average critical response to their second album - they've taken a bit of a misstep here. There sure is a lot of songs, and if I wanted to draw an exhaustive list of all the musical ideas contained herein and stick it on my wall, that'd look like a pretty post-impressionist set of wallpaper, if you axe me. But the overall impression, anyway, is that the album's just one big jumbled mess, occasionally dumb without a purpose and even more often ugly without one either. It's like they took all the same elements and locked them up in a thoroughly disproportional way. No chemistry.

Perhaps one of the major reasons, as has already been pointed out many times, is that there's too much Einar on the record. Rather still, there's too much Einar & Björk interaction: their styles are generally incompatible, and almost every time they cross their vocals it just becomes one big pain in the head. Sometimes, when there's a general structure to that interaction, it comes off tolerable, as in 'Eat The Menu' and 'Shoot Him'; but usually they just keep screaming and yelling over each other's head, and so the listener becomes deranged, confused, misused, and abused. A good example is the album opener, 'Tidal Wave', which, by the way, has nothing in the way of memorable melody either, being based on sort of a weedy mock-calypso rhythm; however, my main problem with it is that I find nothing to laud in either Einar's or Björk's deliveries. There's nothing I didn't know about them already in this song.

Which brings me to my second point - it looks like the Sugarcubes have matured alarmingly fast. Throughout, I miss that pretty "kiddy vibe" of the predecessor. There's no creepy kid story like 'Birthday' on the album, no cute naive child philosophy like 'Deus', not even an excited quasi-childhood reminiscence like the one in 'Motorcrash'. It's gotta be serious stuff, with pretentious, almost metaphysical lyrics of erotic, cosmic, and, sometimes, nonsensic character. The uniqueness is gone; now the Sugarcubes are just spewing out competent, but rather run-of-the-mill expressionist sloth.

No, no, it's not bad expressionist sloth. It's not ridiculous or abominable or anything. In fact, there's still a whole bunch of excellent numbers scattered over the record. 'Regina', for instance, is one of Björk's finest vocal moments in the band, as she creates a lush, romantic, and at the same time incredibly powerful picture with her vocal cords. Not even Einar's idiotic vocal intrusions ('I really don't like lobster!') can spoil the impression that much. I think only certain 4AD bands like the Cocteau Twins were as good, or better, at creating these silver-cloudish ethereal mantras, but the difference is that Björk and Co. show how easy it can be to actually make 'em, without resorting to ultra-complex production. In other words, people like Liz Frazer are miles away from you, while Björk is one "easy-to-find" vocal goddess. So far, at least.

'Speed Is The Key' is the band's "space truckin' anthem", extremely bouncy and upbeat, with jangly guitars driving the song as Einar and Björk trade lines about their ecstatic feelings while travelling 'in an irresistable world'. Particularly fun are Björk's bird-imitating noises. 'Pump', then, is the album's Pretentious Declaration #1, an organ-and-acoustic based mantra with some definite Eastern overtones - and there sure is something in the way Björk intones 'eat me, eat me love...'. I suppose there's supposed to be some deep psychological importance to the fact that Einar howls 'I hate you, I don't like you at all!' as a "response" to the woman's ecstatic pleading, but I'm not sure the Sugarcubes themselves could well define it. The good news is, there's a multiple flute/recorder break.

I actually even like 'Eat The Menu', the simplest and stupidest song on the album, but maybe it's because it brings me closest to the atmosphere of the debut. 'It's none of my business, but you have to eat', Björk casually states, after which she starts suggesting different dishes to the confused Einar, who just can't make a choice because the menu's so huge. The dumbest moment actually comes when Einar goes on singing 'eat the menu, eat the menu', and Björk interrupts him by screaming 'no! eat, eat, eat the moment, eat eat eat a person, eat eat eat a rockband' - at least I thought it was the dumbest moment until I suddenly realized it could be interpreted as the imitation of a humor-obsessed little child, who sometimes is so obsessed with being funny that he will start 'expanding' on his original funniness by saying the dumbest things ever, yet actually thinking he's being exceedingly amusing even if none of the adults are laughing any more and they're all telling him to shut up already and run along. Not sure if this was the original conception, but for some reason, it just strikes me that way, if you get my drift.

'Shoot Him' is just way too weird to be ignored, and way too "violent" for the Sugarcubes to be bypassed. I sure pity the poor landlord who suffered a stroke while being washed in the bathtub after smothering himself in too much gravy (yeah, guess I just liberated you from the desire to actually open the lyrics sheets to any of your Sugarcubes albums), but I seriously dig the chorus - goofy and outstanding. 'A Day Called Zero' and 'Planet' are also good songs, the first one due to its upbeat optimism and the second one due to its clever orchestration (although Einar's 'EVERY MAN EVERY WOMAN' exclamations pretty much kill off most of the charm for me).

Yet there's just way too much second-hand filler in the remaining spots. If you compare the "remake" of 'Open Sweat' (here called 'Hot Meat') with the original, for instance, you'll see what I mean - too much chaos, too many stupid "dialog" bits where the vocals of one singer annihilate the effort of the other one and vice versa. I'm not sure how they wanted for this record to equal or surpass Life's Too Good when at least a third of the songs are entirely interchangeable, containing no melodic or vocal hooks whatsoever. Maybe that was the point - to capitalize on pure "atmosphere" this time, to make this maybe less 'commercial' but much more 'artistic'. Well, it just didn't work.



(released by: THE SUGARCUBES)

Year Of Release: 1992

Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

I definitely can't take this title as anything else but ironic.

Best song: HIT

Track listing: 1) Gold; 2) Hit; 3) Leash Called Love; 4) Lucky Night; 5) Happy Nurse; 6) I'm Hungry; 7) Walkabout; 8) Hetero Sum; 9) Vitamin; 10) Chihuahua.

For most bands, time moves in an ordinary fashion. They start by releasing a sub-standard, derivative, water-treading album, then follow it up with a solid, much more assured effort that shows tremendous promise, and then, finally, deliver their masterpiece. At least it sort of used to be that way. For the Sugarcubes, time moves backwards: they started out with their absolute masterpiece, followed it with a solid, yet uneven and largely forgettable effort, and then, finally, fizzled out with this mildly pleasant piece o' plastic whose motto is: "No Future For The Sugarcubes".

It's not just that they have pretty much dumped the "song approach", replacing it with the "texture approach". It's that everything on here sounds goddamn same. Where they used to have crazy stylistic experimentation or, at least, wild creative ambitions that weren't always satisfied, now they're using a uniform dance-pop approach to all of their material. There are only ten songs on here as opposed to the two previous, chock-full-of-bonuses, CDs, but the album actually feels longer than those two because of the constantly naggin' question: "when, oh when are they gonna break the mold?" They just don't do it this time. Yes, the melodies are different, but so are AC/DC's.

The first two songs do show potential, if only because they're the first ones. 'Gold' opens the album on a harsh rocking note, with jarring power chords beating against the oddly "incompatible" avant-funk rhythm, and, as usual, Bjork is in top form (does she have anything not resembling a 'top form', I wonder?). When 'Hit' comes along, it's pretty much the same rhythm but this time, instead of the power chord attack, the melody is carried by a weirdly tuned synthesizer riff, which for the verses is replaced by a straightforward funk attack. Coupled with Bjork's frantic, near-"pleading" vocal approach, this is one of the most energetic and, well, concentrated tunes on the album - an actual song that actually goes somewhere and is replete with mini-climaxes (each time the synth riff emerges out of nowhere the energy level jumps up a notch).

However, that's about it. Starting from song number three, my typical reaction is: 'Well, I just heard this on 'Gold' and 'Hit'. Maybe try something else for a change?'. Too often, it seems they're not even trying. It's as if they came into the studio with nothing but those two songs on 'em and then proceeded to improvise around these two. The rhythm section pulsates along in a generic funky way, the guitars dick around with more power chords and indie-styled three-chord riffs, and Bjork and Einar exchange their usual exchanges: she with her cooing and growling and untrivial vocal "bends" which are, however, already well predictable for everybody, he with his stream-of-consciousness madman image. Same old story.

This suspicion is further confirmed by the "homemade" smell of the record. Production values have gone down. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Here Today, but I admit that album had depth. 'Pump' is hardly my favourite song of all time, but I definitely was interested by its out-of-nowhere Eastern overtones and stuff. Here, there's no depth, apart from the occasional synth overdub and the occasional (and totally out-of-style) record scratching from time to time. Honestly, the only song out of these eight that finally managed to capture me was 'Walkabout', due to a) the funny David Byrne-like thin wimpy guitar line that crops up in the middle-eight, and b) to the funny way in which Bjork sings 'there's a hole and there's a stick'. Because that is funny.

Oh, wait, there is one more - 'Vitamin' tries so hard to be not just "ass-kicking" but rather "hilarious" that it's no big problem to be caught up in the hilariousness, provided you haven't already fallen asleep or something. That's not to say it's memorable, but at least that song has "we're just fooling around and not pretending to be doing anything mildly serious" written all over it, unlike most of the other stuff which just sort of leaves me scratching the back o' me head in confusion. Something like 'Chihuahua'. Is it a song about a bad dog or is it a song about green aliens landing on the planet? More likely it's just a criss-crossing of two different ideas, like the Beatles did on 'I've Got A Feeling': a bow-wow-based dance track and a drunken UFO rambling. Does it work? That's up to you to decide, but I personally don't think it does. I think it's autopilot.

Although, granted, it's not half as bad as 'Hetero Sum', which is the sort of track that, I'm pretty sure, the Sugarcubes needed exactly five minutes to create and record after sticking together for the Joy of four or five years, whichever it was. You might remember the song as 'Turning again! Turning again!', which is the line Bjork keeps singing over and over although for me it will always be 'Top of the gang! Top of the gang!' - boy, did that line ever confuse me, cuz for me, it was definitely the bottom of the gang.

I don't really know why they recorded this. Contractual obligations? It's perfectly clear that neither Einar nor Bjork's souls are in this by-the-numbers record. Bjork, in particular, is clearly ready to move on and leave the Sugarcubes stage behind as a relict of the late Eighties.



Year Of Release: 1993

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

The pixie comes of age? Well, I doubt she'll EVER come of age...

Best song: VENUS AS A BOY

Track listing: 1) Human Behaviour; 2) Crying; 3) Venus As A Boy; 4) There's More To Life Than This; 5) Like Someone In Love; 6) Big Time Sensuality; 7) One Day; 8) Aeroplane; 9) Come To Me; 10) Violently Happy; 11) The Anchor Song; [BONUS TRACK:] 12) Play Dead.

Well... you want it, you got it. No more Einar for youse; from now on, you'll have the pleasure of listening to Bjork's undiluted, untampered-with acoustic apparatus as much as you wish. That said, her first album was definitely confusing. Rolling Stone (predictably) trashed it, and many other people remained perplexed - and for a simple reason: it's not quite clear what we are supposed to do with this stuff. It's just one of those rare (or not so rare) cases when there's about as many arguments to declare the work a dud as there are to declare it genius, and the majority of these arguments would be the same in both cases. Is Debut (and Bjork in general) a stupid show-off of a questionable talent, or an example of wonderful, unique artistic vision?

I go for the latter. If only because when you have to choose between positive and negative, choosing for positive would mean you're a positive person yourself. But no, not just because of that. To this one should add the unquestionable talents of Bjork as a vocalist, and also the fact that I'm not feeling "cold" towards this music. In fact, almost every song on here triggers some kind of nerve - the nice nerve, mostly, but in a couple of cases the results are so amazingly bad that yeah, you have to admit there is something going on here.

I guess Debut should be qualified as 'electronica' or 'dance-pop' or 'techno-pop', which by no means says it all about the stylistic diversity and invention on the record. After moving to London, Bjork was indeed fascinated by the dance scene, and hired a producer that was closely associated with that scene; but that does not mean she was subjugated by that scene. The result is like a good Sugarcubes record with all the guitars removed and bass, drums, tape loops, and occasional orchestration replacing them. This, by itself, is neither good nor bad; the best thing about the Sugarcubes was not the quality of their instrumentation, but rather the degree to which they could rev up the "infantile madness" atmosphere.

Without the Sugarcubes, there's a little less "infantilism" going on, but then again, time is going on - it's time to get more serious. Well, no. Not serious. There's nothing serious on this record. It's definitely not brain-oriented. It's friggin' dance music after all! But it is a bit more subtle, because, after all, when you're on your own, you may take the time to delve into little hidden pockets of your soul which you just didn't have the time for when you were in a band.

The general opinion is that Bjork's main and only instrument, the one that's really worth paying attention to, is her voice. That's not quite true. In fact, the two songs on this album which rely on nothing but her voice are easily the worst. I realize that her take on 'Like Someone In Love' is supposed to be taken as a daring deconstruction of this classic ballad, and the rawness, 'clumsiness' and even occasional 'hoarseness' with which she sings it are most probably intentional, but I don't like it. This is an album I want to enjoy with my heart and soul, and when smack dab in the middle I get this "statement", it sort of throws me off the track, if you know what I mean. A similar situation arises with the album closer, 'Anchor Song', where, in addition to Bjork's vocals, you have a pair of really dissonant, really "arhythmic" saxes bellowing in unison. The end result is ugly. "Ugly" is not a word I'd like to associate with Bjork. (Sidenote - some actually find it beautiful, but in my humble opinion, if this is beauty, it's a very, very warped kind of beauty. Call me a close-minded conservative if you wish).

Apart from these two minor stinkers, though, everything works. And works not just because Bjork is such a mighty singer - works because the arrangements are good, too. 'Venus As A Boy' isn't randomly chosen as the best song: apart from the haunting vocal melody (what's the force of these pauses in between the words of the 'he believes in beauty' line that makes it so memorable, I wonder?), it features an exotic quasi-Indian strings arrangement that works perfectly. Listening to this song is like contemplating a half-decadent, half-impressionistic work of art. In a dream, of course. And the lead-off single, 'Human Behaviour', would be far less intriguing if it didn't have that "gruesome" synth solo in the middle so perfectly attenuating Bjork's own delivery.

That said, of course, the majority of the tracks is indeed made great primarily by the pixie's vocal performance. If you're looking for vocal hooks of the classic pop kind, go elsewhere, but this doesn't mean there are no pop hooks whatsoever. The "hook" for Bjork assumes the form of a single vocal phrase which can later on be repeated as often as needed (sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less). Example: 'Crying cause I need you!'. Another example: 'It takes courage to enjoy it!' Another example: 'I can FEEL it!'. Another example: 'You know that I adore you!'. And so on. These are simple phrases, for the most part, but saved from cliche-dom by Bjork's personality. It's a case where you can exactly, to a tee, to a second, pinpoint the exact location where the MAGIC takes place - you just can't explain WHY it takes place. Well, it doesn't take place for everybody.

A particular favourite of mine is 'There's More To Life Than This'. The perfect party song that puts down the party mentality! Rumours have it that it was recorded live in a bathroom of one of London's dance clubs, and it does sound like it - with Bjork "stepping away" from the music from time to time to further lay down her ideas about how 'it's getting boring, there's more to life than this'. Again, the song would be nothing at all if it weren't for Bjork singing it, but the basic idea is fun regardless.

Technically speaking, Debut is not the peak of Bjork's solo career - it couldn't hope to be, considering that it was, after all, her first entry into the world of house, trance, and techno, and that her fantasies hadn't taken full flight yet, just one year after she'd left her band. But if you ask me, it is her artistic peak: where it might be lacking in sheer boldness and/or vastness of scope, it more than makes up for it with the perfect balance of everything. On subsequent records, concepts of melody, structure, and suchlike would gradually float away, leaving us with nothing but Fantasy, with a big F, and a score of technological gadgets to back it up. Here, you have your shiny fine multipurpose record. You can dance to it, you can use it as background music, you can listen to it intently, you can analyze it on three hundred pages of text, you can have sex to it, you can relax to it, you can use it as a coaster, finally. It may not have my favourite Bjork song on it, but statistically, it's this here album that contains the maximum number of Bjork tracks I really like to replay over and over again.

And whatever one can say, the record is, if not a hundred, then at least eighty-five percent confident and it does create a unique magical atmosphere. So far, nothing else was really required. Oh, and my edition has a nifty bonus track called 'Play Dead', which is her first atmospheric foray into the world of pseudo-Buddhism, I guess. Don't miss it.



Year Of Release: 1995

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

A bit too heavy on the arrangements to have too much in the way of memorable moments. But colourful, just like the album cover suggests.

Best song: ARMY OF ME

Track listing: 1) Army Of Me; 2) Hyper-ballad; 3) The Modern Things; 4) It's Oh So Quiet; 5) Enjoy; 6) You've Been Flirting Again; 7) Isobel; 8) Possibly Maybe; 9) I Miss You; 10) Cover Me; 11) Headphones.

Now this is Bjork as people really come to know her. Only occasionally are there any traces of the "little girl fooling around" left, which were still in abundance on Debut. This is a 'mature' album if there ever was one, and we are being told that explicitly with the very first note, as a jarring percussion noise leads us into a grim, ominous synth-bass loop that forms the basis for 'Army Of Me'. There was nothing even remotely as menacing as that on Debut; in fact, it might just be the 'scariest' (well, it's not really scary, but it does fall into the Scary category formally) song with Bjork on it since 'Coldsweat'. The lyrics match the mood: 'And if you complain once more, you'll meet an army of me', she sings. Not to mention that the first verse goes: 'Stand up, you've got to manage, I won't sympathize anymore'.

She sure won't. Post completely abandons the traditional 'song' concept and firmly replaces it with the 'Patented Bjork Rant' one. No sympathy towards those who don't feel like agreeing with the idea. I remember it took me three listens before I even started to discern stuff on here, and, not being Mr Bizarre Atmosphere Guy like some of the people out there, I remember thinking whether I should finally pull a Robert Christgau and blast this Icelandic witch to pieces with my "ghettoblaster". I did - in my mind. I felt good about it. Then, after I felt I was relieved, I was able to look upon this with a pair of different eyes, the ones I used when writing about the Cocteau Twins, for instance. And here are the results.

This is not a masterpiece. But it is a serious piece of art, enjoyable in parts and respectable in other parts. Well, I guess it is respectable throughout - the parts that are respectable, but hardly enjoyable, are the parts where she ditches the melodies altogether in order to concentrate on her M-16, er, I mean, her vocal cords. Unless you're easily seduced and just love the sound of her voice, no matter what exactly she might be doing with it, I don't think you will want to think of 'Cover Me' and 'Headphones' as major highlights, because 'Cover Me' just has a few isolated harp phrases to back her up (not counting the pseudo-"shootout" effects) and 'Headphones' only accompanies the singing with a bunch of electronic percussion. That said, I think some of the vocal twists on 'Cover Me' are proverbially gorgeous, the way a Titian picture can be proverbially gorgeous although you don't have much use for it in your everyday life.

However, where there are melodies, the results are usually richer. 'Army Of Me' is the definite highlight, but then there's the almost-as-hardcore 'Enjoy', sort of a techno-meets-funk groove where her roar, the grind of the percussion and the trumpets of the Apocalypse come together in a magnificent sonic landscape. And again, the lyrics match the mood by giving us a picture of something potentially dangerous, although it is still not quite clear what the message is. 'How can I ignore/When this is sex without touching' - is it about ecstasy or something? Could be. The two biggies, 'Isobel', and 'Hyper-ballad', are quite good too. 'Isobel' (sic!) looks like a leftover from the 'kiddie era' - the lyrics, with their 'her moth delivers her message' lines, remind me of 'Birthday' off the Sugarcubes' debut, and the orchestration in places sounds like it was lifted from a generic Disney soundtrack, although, of course, within this particular context it ceases to be generic. 'Hyper-ballad', meanwhile, does not belie its title, starting out slowly and hypnotically and then, very gradually, transforming into a violent techno-rave. The song doesn't have a basic hookline, but listen long again and you'll have the line 'I go through all this...' firmly imprinted in your stomach. It's got a natural beauty of its own.

The "child mentality" actually does come out one more time in the not-so-absurd lyrics of 'The Modern Things', which pretty much sets the objective idealism conception to music: 'All the modern things/Like cars and such/They have always existed/They've just been waiting in a mountain/For the right moment', she sings, before switching to the atmospheric abracadabra of the "chorus". Just another of those tunes where it's hard to pinpoint the "likable" but somehow there is something to that stuff that I can't whirl my tongue around. (In contrast to Debut, too, where, like I said, I could take most of the songs and, with a pair of pincers, extract precisely the right moment where the magic is happening).

There's space left for the obligatory "joke song", too: this time it's 'It's Oh So Quiet', where Bjork tries her forces at lounge music, and makes the song attractive with a clever alternation of quiet (sssh, sssh) and loud (WOW! BAM!) sections. Not nearly as funny as last time's 'There's More To Life Than This', but then again, it does belong to quite a different musical genre, so you might feel the opposite. All I can say is that there's no way Bjork could have pulled a Liza Minelli, but she definitely "deconstructs" her in a much more interesting way than she deconstructs Frank Sinatra.

That said, my personal preference, if we were to compare the 'beginning' and the 'advanced' stage, would still go to Debut. Post certainly wins when it comes to inventiveness. The arrangements are richer and the melodies more complex; you could study all the synth loops and swooping orchestras and tricky percussion rhythms for ages and still have something to work with, whereas on Debut, Bjork's voice and vocal melodies were holding about 90% of my attention. But I did like the playfulness and simplicity of the former slightly more than the seriousness and "frigidity" of the latter - I mean, Post is an 'ice cold' album, and it's a bit too cold even for somebody who comes from Iceland. (Hey, I come from Moscow, and while we're not as far North as Iceland is, we don't have no friggin' geysers around here either! I know my cold!). On the other hand, where Post loses in enjoyability, it gains in respect. It isn't a record I will see myself returning to often (unlike Debut), but it's definitely a record I would heartily recommend to just about anyone interested in Nineties' music.



Year Of Release: 1996

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Hey, the electronica crowds know their job. Nice popularization move!

Best song: ISOBEL

Track listing: 1) Possibly Maybe; 2) Hyper-ballad; 3) Enjoy; 4) My Spine; 5) I Miss You; 6) Isobel; 7) You've Been Flirting Again; 8) Cover Me; 9) Army Of Me; 10) Headphones.

Telegram isn't actually a Bjork album. It is a Bjork album in that the songs are all Bjork's, in fact, they are all taken from Post with only one small new composition ('My Spine') replacing 'The Modern Things'. It is not a Bjork album, though, in that all the rearrangements and remixes are done not by Bjork, but by Rabbit's friends-and-relations - people ranging from Bjork's London "colleagues" in the electronica business and ending with the Brodsky Quartet.

But you know what? I like this album just as much as I like Post. In fact, screw that, I like it more than I like Post. The only reason I give them both the same rating is that I'd feel funny giving Telegram - a "non-Bjork" record - a higher rating than a "pure" Bjork record. Ditching aside the numbers, though, this is one hell of a wond'rous experience; please disregard the fact that it is usually dismissed as 'the one where she goes remix-style' and treat it as an essential recording in its own rights.

For one thing, it's a big plus that she manages to get all these people on here. Each track is arranged by one and one only band/duet/artist/DJ, and no two tracks are arranged by the same one. That gives the record a huge nudge in the diversity department which, naturally, the brave Icelandic witch couldn't have challenged on her own were Odin and Thor both present in the studio during the sessions for her next album. Obviously, because of that, one might like some approaches and dislike others, but I happen to think she hit the bullseye on most counts - there ain't one track on here where I'd go "yuck" or just sit back and be bored. (Okay, I sort of get bored with 'Headphones', but that's the point).

Second, only a few of the tracks could really be called "remixes". In most cases, there's a radical rewrite of everything - from the arrangement to the melodies to the vocal parts. Some of the songs can only be recognized by the title, in fact, while others still preserve some links with the past but now convey a whole different set of emotions. This was obviously a challenge for everyone involved to do their best - and they did. In that sense, it can be treated as a very generous way of sharing the popularity with friends and colleagues: get them some well-earned recognition, which is just as well because, from what I know about many of these names, they're not exactly household ones.

Let's just look at some of these transformations. 'Possibly Maybe' was weird enough on Post, but here, with treatment from LFO, it is positively hallucinogenic - Bjork's encoded vocals twirl around the rhythm section like phantoms, wobbly synthesizer patterns throw you off balance, and the stop-and-start structure renders the whole experience completely unpredictable. Then the Brodsky Quartet does 'Hyper-ballad' - naturally, there is no more tension-rising as there was on Post; instead, it is replaced by the luvverly interaction of Bjork's "aria" with the usual high quality performance of the Quartet. This results in a sort of "neo-classical" effect that is completely listenable and emotional, unlike most "neo-classical" I've heard.

Then there's Outcast's 'Enjoy'... frankly speaking, I have no idea how this "rearrangement" relates to the original; I guess the only traces should be looked for in the samples of Bjork's voice scattered around the track mainly in sequences of one or two syllables. The rest is a manic electronic-industrial percussion attack which I could tentatively christen "Behold The Mighty Oliphaunt In Ye Olde Chemistry Shoppe". Just when it stops being fun and starts resembling a bad nightmare I once had when I dreamt my belly was a synthesizer and my legs the two members of Autechre, it abruptly ends and is replaced by the new 'tune', 'My Spine' - more Bjork rambling, this time set to moody chimey percussion rhythms of deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Two and a half minutes of mild, kind-hearted, playful weirdness that remain probably the most "childlike" moment on the record.

The next two songs are relatively 'normal' - meaning they're based on steady, unchanging beats and convey pretty much the same atmosphere from beginning to end, and thus are more in touch with Bjork's regular work. That's not to say they're uninteresting or boring. 'I Miss You' is, in fact, vastly improved upon - the sharp beat somehow offers a better background to Bjork's vocals here, and the desperation and even threat that were only hinted at in the Post version become the norm. More questionable is the little "rap bridge" in the middle, but since it's short, I haven't yet made up my mind whether it's good or not. 'Isobel' also impresses me more in this particular arrangement, courtesy of Deodato: the strings aren't exactly as original as when used on 'Venus As A Boy', but ecstatic enough, and the whole track breathes with a new life, with light touches of funk as far as the bass and the brass are concerned.

After these two, fantasy unbridled starts reigning once more. 'You've Been Flirting Again' reminds me of Tim Buckley's ventures into outer space on Starsailor, although, of course, Bjork never "grates" as much as Tim Buckley does. 'Cover Me' used to be a one-trick bore, what with the spare arrangements and all, but Dilinja transforms it into a hodge-podge of everything - tricky little hi-hat beats, isolated harp phrases, synth swirls, layers of echo... and seeing as how for the most part Bjork only sings 'cover me' and 'this is really dangerous', you might say the whole song has been reinterpreted as a little paranoid journey through your subconscious. Sort of a 'Fingerprint File' for the electronic age.

If that was a radical reinterpretation, then how about 'Army Of Me'? There are no more verses left in the song. In fact, there's no more chorus either. Instead, you get a very, very grim, very brutal electronic loop going on, while all that remains of Bjork is the phrase 'army of me', with the first syllable extended, talkbox-encoded and looped so that it can only be taken for the love call of the Martian crocodile - until, of course, the ' of me' part comes along and the truth is established. Now of course, this is a "joke" version that could by no means compete with the original, but it's a great joke. And finally, we end with the "reinvention" of 'Headphones' as a minimalistic ambient track which is A-OK by me. It was minimalistic on Post as well, but there I had to take it as a song, and that was painful. Here, the very first notes tell me I'm supposed to take it like I would take Brian Eno's Thursday Afternoon, and that is tolerable.

In all, I can't say the album should get two thumbs up for entertainment - if I had to choose three songs for further listening, I'd go ahead with 'I Miss You', 'Isobel', and maybe 'Hyper-ballad' and not shed too many tears for the rest - but it definitely gets all the thumbs I can get for inventiveness and atmosphere. And if you ask me, it's a good thing it is regularly included into Bjork's official discography: it would grieve me were this thing to pass into the "tribute" albums category, because in spirit, it definitely goes beyond mere "tribute".



Year Of Release: 1997

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

I like Bjork and all, but I like her slightly less when her music is about as distant as the album sleeve.


Track listing: 1) Hunter; 2) Joga; 3) Unravel; 4) Bachelorette; 5) All Neon Like; 6) 5 Years; 7) Immature; 8) Alarm Call; 9) Pluto; 10) All Is Full Of Love.

From a formalistic point of view, this is Bjork's masterpiece, but it only goes to show how far I am from being formalistic. If I may be so bold as to suggest a prog-rock analogy, then Homogenic relates to Post in pretty much the same way as Tales From Topographic Oceans relate to Fragile. In other words - Over. The. Fuckin'. Top.

Not that it wasn't bound to happen. This is a record coming from a master-of-the-art, a seasoned pro, soaked in contemporary influences and arthouse ambition, just itching to make that overwhelming artistic masterpiece that will allow the passage to the 'next level'. The "song" level is way past. This is a grandiose theatrical, quasi-operatic performance, with nary a tiny hint of the childish playfulness of old. And no matter what I, or anybody else, thinks about the music itself, you can't help but agree that the album cover matches it perfectly. Bjork as a Bodhisattva means two things: (a) solemnity and (b) detachment. When you look at the face, it is Bjork and it is not Bjork. The basic traits are hers, but essentially it's a mask.

And that's exactly the way I feel about the album. Superficially, it seems to be brimming with emotion, with some of the lady's most exuberant vocal performances to date. But the icy cold electronic textures bring a sense of distance, and with each subsequent listen that sense only grows further and further, until, at some point, you start to realize that she's consciously letting herself be subdued by these textures - engulfed in the musical equivalent of the Arctic Ocean. Just the way it would befit somebody who has truly seen "enlightenment" (even if she's 'no fuckin' Buddhist') - a state of mind which, it must be remembered, leaves absolutely no place for emotions of any kind, be they positive or negative. This is solemn, grandiose music, but it lacks heart, no matter how ecstatic the singing is: and the funniest thing is, I can't blame her for that, because that was obviously the point. But I liked her better when there was a heart to the music.

But don't get me wrong: Homogenic is a good record. It's depersonalized to insanity, but it's still a good record. It isn't consistent, though, and whenever I fall upon a gushing review of it that says there's not a single misstep anywhere in sight, I can't help but feel that the highlights on here are indeed so strong that they even make people forget about the lowlights. Because - sorry - I can't take a track like 'All Neon Like' as anything but a "misstep". It's slow, it's poorly arranged, and the never ending "dum-de-dum chug chug dum-de-dum chug chug" signature just gets on my nerves eventually. No strings, no tricky synth patterns, almost no development - it's almost as if the only purpose of the song was to create a simple musical backing for the message: 'don't get angry with yourself'.

Likewise, I have absolutely no use for 'Alarm Call'. Not only does the song actually not satisfy the "requirements" for the album (where's the lush production? where's the depth of the arrangement?), it commits the ultimate mistake of being the only more or less 'upbeat' song on the album without a single serious hookline (emphasize the word "serious" - the basic synthline which carries the song is relatively catchy and danceable, but I've heard better ones on Madonna's debut). The main vocals are recited rather than sung, and the backing vocals are just a mess. The only plus I find in the song is that when she sings, er, sorry, spells "I want to go on a mountain top/With a radio and good batteries", there's a small twinkling moment of the good old kiddie Bjork in there. Of course, then she has to go ahead and spoil it with the 'And play a joyous tune/And save the human race from suffering' bit. Whatever. I can only explain the song's relative popularity by its clever positioning within the album - it really comes along as that one upbeat, "light" breather in between all the heavy 'spiritual' stuff.

That said, I feel a sort of inner contradiction within meself coming on. Where I have just "complained" that Bjork's 'maturatity' is just a bit heavy-handed to take, it actually turns out that the best material on Homogenic is precisely the "mature" one, and that it is when she relieves the "heavy attack" that trouble comes. Easily the "deepest" trilogy of songs on here are 'Hunter', 'Joga', and 'Bachelorette', and each of them rules. 'Hunter' opens the album on an even spookier note than 'Army Of Me', with more of those Indian strings crossed with grim martial electronic rhythms, unnerving 'oooooh ooooooh's in the background, post-psychedelic pseudo-Mellotron synth patterns, and a completely detached, solemn vocal delivery that informs us of her going hunting. And if you thought 'I'm no fuckin' Buddhist, but this is enlightenment' was the best line on the album, well I got news for you: 'Thought I could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of me' is.

Then 'Joga' comes up, a delicious melange of religious influences - despite the song title, all the "riddle" and "state of emergency, is where I want to be" declarations are, of course, related to Zen Buddhism rather than to Indian practices. Again, there's a curious sense of detachment and cloudiness all around, emphasized by the unreal interaction between the lush, symphonic synth-string arrangements and the madly pulsating bursts of electronic percussion.

But the album's centerpoint, of course, is 'Bachelorette'. One of Bjork's most easily recognizable and popular songs, I guess it may be derided for some of the snobbier part of the population because its main melody is - let's face it - rather conventional for such an eccentric as the "Ice Queen". It's built upon grandiose, intense melodrama, with a strong Eastern influence again, of course, but with a rather straightforward manner of singing and a very memorable and, in a way, emotionally devastating main vocal melody. As pretentious as it is to sing 'I'm a fountain of blood/In the shape of a girl/You're a bird on the brim/Hypnotized by the whirl', just give the song one listen and it'll be obvious that with a melody as soaring as that, "pretention" is a totally irrelevant concept here.

Unfortunately, after 'Bachelorette' my attention simply drifts away. It may come back at certain points ('5 Years', as uninteresting as it is melodically, still works fairly well as your basic one-artist theater performance), but the point of permanent return occurs only during the quasi-instrumental electronic bloodbath of 'Pluto', which is just so sharp and fuckin' "hardcore" that it dissipates the 'slumber' in five seconds, and thus helps me to stay awake during the final peon 'All Is Full Of Love'. Which is a very good peon, although I would dare to suggest that the 'love' of 'All Is Full Of Love' is certainly not the equivalent of the 'love' in 'All You Need Is Love'. The latter meant the basic human feeling of love; this one is more like love divine taken in the pantheistic aspect, the vital force, the Tao, if you wish. That's why the song doesn't make you feel warmer, although it sure does make you feel... higher? greater? mightier? Something like that.

To sum it up, Homogenic is an album that fails in theory, but succeeds in practice, and at the same time, succeeds in theory, but fails in practice. That's exactly the way I feel about it, and if you don't understand what I'm saying, well, you're not necessarily supposed to. Feel free to call this review a big pile of nonsense - just remember, somewhere else in this world hides The Lurker who applies the same definition to Homogenic. And he might be close to you. Hey! Look behind your shoulder!



Year Of Release: 2000

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

In which Bjork gets all realistic on our asses.

Best song: I'VE SEEN IT ALL

Track listing: 1) Overture; 2) Cvalda; 3) I've Seen It All; 4) Scatterheart; 5) In The Musicals; 6) 107 Steps; 7) New World.

There is a school of opinion that says it is impossible and useless to try and appreciate this record without seeing the movie to which it serves as the basic soundtrack - Lars von Trier's Dancer In The Dark, the only movie in which Bjork ever starred and, according to her current disposition, the last one. Having actually seen the movie, I'm not in an objective position to disagree, but subjectively I think this line of reasoning sells short the potential of this album. It is perfectly enjoyable without the accompanying movie, and, however radical this statement may seem, I think it is better than the movie.

You see, Dancer In The Dark is primarily and essentially a Lars von Trier creation. Bjork as an artist relates to Lars von Trier as an artist about as well as Lou Reed relates to Paul McCartney. Dancer In The Dark is a moralistic, leftist-oriented, somewhat "anti-American" statement of the traditional kind. I will stress "traditional" here. You're an outcast, you're deciding to build a new shiny life for yourself, and you get fucked in the process. That's a subject as old as life itself. Whether von Trier did a good or a bad job of resuscitating it (I would personally rate the movie a B+, if you're interested) is a different matter, irrelevant to this review. The relevant thing is that why the hell he picked Bjork for the role of blind Czech immigrant Selma - we probably will never know.

But it's a goshdarn good thing he did pick her. Not only did she play her part well, it was the 'musical' part of the movie that was the most impressive, lending it a really "modern" and slightly surrealistic feel even if the action was supposed to take place in, what, 1964? Granted, the lyrics were mostly written by von Trier and reflected his views and ideas, but the music and the performance was one hundred percent Bjork; also, if I am not mistaken, some of the lyrics were ultimately changed for the soundtrack album... weren't they? Well, maybe they weren't, frankly speaking, I don't remember. Been too long since I've seen the movie, frankly.

The final result - this soundtrack - is a somewhat unique product in Bjork's discography. The music is just as twisted and bizarre as always, but the whole thing has a much more humane and personal feel to it. This is no fairy-tale pixie, no cold and distant Ice Boddhisattva; this is an ordinary human being, if a little bit unusual and with a "swollen mind", if you know what I mean. (Which reminds me - I have always suspected that the "Beatles" were saying "Swollen mind", not "It's all in the mind", at various points in Yellow Submarine. Damn those DVD subtitles that bruised the mystery). And all of a sudden - in fact, in a totally unpredictable way - we hit the jackpot!

This is a wonderful collection of songs. Its only drawback is that it is way, way too short (barely over thirty minutes), and that, due to lack of material, some of the songs had to be gruesomely extended over the expected lengths. As much as I like 'Scatterheart', it makes its point in three, maximum four minutes, and should make way for the next statement instead of dragging on for two and a half minutes more - but, of course, seeing as how they had to stretch it out to what at least constitutes EP length, the pandering is understandable. On the other hand, three and a half minutes of 'Overture', which barely elevates itself above "generic atmosphere setter", simply cannot be justified - could be, if the album was twice as long. There's some obviously painful inadequacy here. It's also strange that 'The Next-to-Last Song', the accappella piece sung by Bjork near the end of the movie, was omitted. Problems with lyrics?..

What this bitching was supposed to mean is that I wouldn't dare to give this a rating any higher than 11. But what this bitching was not supposed to mean is that I don't think much of 'Cvalda', 'I've Seen It All', 'Scatterheart', 'In The Musicals', and 'New World'. (I didn't count 'Overture' because, well, it's an overture, and '107 Steps' because it's the one song whose point is really driven home in the movie and definitely not outside its context). Because I do - I think they're among the finest songs she ever created. One might make a preliminary hypothesis that, since they were in a popular - even if anti-commercial - movie, they might be a bit more 'conventional' than her recent work. Well, no, they aren't. They're less conventional. Some of this stuff here easily beats out the most complex stuff on Homogenic. If I were to make catchiness the primary criterion upon which to rate Bjork, no way the record could have gotten more than a 6.

What makes Selmasongs so different is that you can relate. 'Cvalda' is the song of a person who takes the ordinary humdrum of everyday work at the factory, runs it through the wires of her brains and perceives it as miraculous, force-giving music that saves your life. 'I've Seen It All' is the song of a small person who faces his limitations with an open mind and heart. 'Scatterheart' is, well, it's just a lullaby. 'In The Musicals' - a song of a small person comparing his love to a musical. And 'New World'... well, this one's definitely not the world of Columbus, if you know what I mean.

Yes, you can relate to it all, relate and in the meantime appreciate the musical ideas that went into these songs. 'Cvalda' is perhaps the quintessential Industrial Song - a tune based on the rhythmic pulsation of factory engines and stuff, not just an artsy composition featuring cling-clanging (the usual way for Industrial as a genre), but an actual song based on cling-clanging, where Selma (Bjork) duets with Cvalda (Catherine Deneuve). Where else can you hear 'Clatter, crash, bang!' cried out with so much joy and excitement? Now that is true adoration of The Sound if you ask me. 'I've Seen It All' is based on the actual rhythm created by a train and features Bjork dueting with universal darling Thom Yorke (of Motley Crue fame) - a great song if there ever was one, dark, menacing, and yet featuring a glimpse of hope every time one of the singers answers a posed question ('What about China, have you seen the Great Wall?' 'All walls are great, if the roof doesn't fall').

'Scatterheart' is perhaps the creepiest lullaby ever set to tape; if Bjork's shiver-sending "madhouse whispers" don't convince you, then maybe the endlessly repeated desperate 'You are gonna haa-a-a-ve to find out for yourself!' mantra will. 'In The Musicals' sounds nothing like a typical musical number, but that's only suitable for a mind as warped as Selma's (or Bjork's). And 'New World', just to inject a little optimism in this world of despair and injustice, builds up to a tremendous uplifting climax, so that in the end the soundtrack to the movie starts looking much more uplifting than the movie itself (which hardly ever seemed uplifting, acting in full coordination with all of Murphy's laws).

To put a long story short, these songs are absolutely indispensable for anybody who wants a serious acquaintance with Bjork's work. Whether you ingest them as a soundtrack or prefer to go straight to the movie itself is your choice, but don't miss these songs. They show an important facet of Bjork's personality that you won't really find on any of her other records. And if this isn't her personality, if it's Selma's, or Lars von Trier's, who gives a shit anyway? That doesn't make the songs any worse.



Year Of Release: 2001

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

More vulnerable and more subtle than Homogenic, but not one bit less beautiful. Actually, more beautiful.

Best song: any of the first four would qualify.

Track listing: 1) Hidden Place; 2) Cocoon; 3) It's Not Up To You; 4) Undo; 5) Pagan Poetry; 6) Frosti; 7) Aurora; 8) An Echo A Stain; 9) Sun In My Mouth; 10) Heirloom; 11) Harm Of Will; 12) Unison.

Imagine a brooding avantgarde phantasia akin to Homogenic, but restrained and tempered by the more realistic and humanistic approach of Selmasongs, and you get Vespertine - in a way, quite the logical follow-up to whatever preceded it. In pure terms of melody and arrangements I'd say that the two albums are absolutely on par with each other - Homogenic would beat this sequel in terms of high points (there's nothing as immediately smashing as 'Bachelorette' or 'Joga' on here), but Vespertine kills it in terms of consistency, since only one or two songs on here have nothing to offer apart from the regular atmosphere. But this is not the main thing.

The main thing is that there is little of the "frigid alienation" of Homogenic in this music. The pretentious pseudo-Buddhist imagery of four years ago is all but gone, replaced by more of Bjork's personal fantasies and dreams; lyrically, this is almost a "retreat" to Post territory. The melodies are much more "homely" - more quiet, with less reliance on electronics than before, with a lot of stress placed on "high" sounding instruments from harps to chimes; and against these softer, more 'angelic' backgrounds Bjork's own vocals are closer to the listener than they ever were - only too suitable since most of the time she prefers to sing in half-whisper or complete whisper. Indeed, these are all songs that could have easily been performed by Selma - you could hardly see Selma chanting the words to 'Bachelorette', right? These ones almost sound like an expansion to Selmasongs, only they come from a Selma that's already in Heaven. So it's not so dark any more.

Like I said, a few of the songs (mostly the ones near the end, but not right at the end - that does seem to be an unlucky location on most Bjork albums) don't have much in the way of a particular point, but that isn't difficult to take in. There's a vague ambient aura throughout; this is the quietest Bjork album so far, and pretty much her most vocal-oriented one, where "vocal-oriented" means "designed so as to entrance the listener by the mere sound of a human voice" rather than "full of vocal melodies". That's not to say there aren't any vocal hooks - there are, on about half of the songs. But out of all her albums, this one is the most atmosphere-oriented, simply because more or less the same atmosphere permeates every song from beginning to end. Bjork calls this Vespertine, and I am not sure if that's quite the right title to use - "vespertine", in my mind, evokes something slightly dark and lonely, with a tinge of melancholia and contemplation... well, yes, all these things apply to this atmosphere, but I get the feeling that's not the main point. Besides, there's too much light here for this stuff to be truly "vespertine"-like. Maybe Somnambulic would be a better title?

'Hidden Place' immediately establishes the album for what it is. The strange, "pushing" percussion sounds like a cross between a heartbeat and a pre-earthquake series of underground tremors - distant and faraway at the same time. The background vocals, forming a series of actual melodic hooks, sound like a choir of angels - also distant, but obviously friendly. And Bjork, once again, assumes the "insecure little girl" vocal image, singing about how 'through the warmest cord of care/Your love was sent to me/I'm not sure what to do with it/Or where to put it.../I'll keep it in a hidden place'. That's what an insecure little girl is gonna do with her most cherished presents, isn't she? How cuuuuute.

Now, if it were just one song like that, okay... but it's an album chockful of these songs. And that's good, because that's what she does best: providing a pseudo-naive look on complex things and trying to make them look simple by writing complex lyrics about them (yep, that's pretty much the way it is). 'It's Not Up To You', featuring the most "accessible" chorus on the record, is all about how you have to give it up and accept life for what it is, good or bad, because 'it's not up to you/It never was'. Is that an optimistic or a pessimistic view of life? It's neither - nor optimistic sugar nor pessimistic whining. Is the music sad or joyful? It's neither - it's very pretty, but it's completely devoid of the "good/bad" opposition. It's this weird view of the world... well, it might look weird to your average adult person, but it's perfectly normal as a view of somebody who's growing up and does not want to accept the world in terms of "good" or "bad".

In terms of "beautiful" where "beautiful" does not equal "good", it does work, though. 'Aurora' is simply a piece of utter beauty, even if it's not quite clear what the beauty is supposed to mean. The harps are pretty much the only instrument to carry the melody here, and the backing vocals, true to the title, really convey the feeling of the rising sun (so much for 'vespertine'), but why is 'aurora' supposed to be 'utter mundane'? Is it just a Liz Fraser-like nonsensical word combination that sounds cool or is it a metaphor for, for instance, the idea that even the most beautiful things on Earth are in fact not of divine descent? An atheistic statement? Nah, probably just a bit of sonically pleasing nonsense. A bit of childish babble, just like all the rest of the song's lyrics.

Perhaps the most haunting, if you're willing to give in, are those tracks where Bjork really makes the most use of her voice, putting everything else far behind. 'Cocoon' has her half-whispering, half-cooing in her highest range - something like a cross between a lullaby and a mantra. No real melody to speak of, indeed, this sounds more like a piece of free-form poetry recited "with expressivity", but did that ever harm anybody? 'Undo' is more like a direct mantra, based on the endless repeating of the lines 'It's not meant to be a strife/It's not meant to be a struggle uphill' (the message is actually close to the one in 'It's Not Up To You' - themes of submission and giving in to the ways of nature keep recurring throughout the entire album). And it's the directness of these songs, their addressing you straight in the face, that really transforms them from basic mood pieces into strong artistic statements. These are things where every sung note actually matters.

I think it is no coincidence that the only song that doesn't feel like it's working for me, 'Heirloom', is stylistically closest to the Homogenic vibe. On that one, Bjork is slightly more distant and pretentious, the angelic backing vocals are absent, the electronic bleeping is more prominent, and the hooks completely absent - sort of like an 'All Neon Like' for the year 2001. Fortunately, the album closes not with 'Heirloom', but rather with 'Unison', a compromise between the universalism of Homogenic and the dreamy fairytale of this album - more harps and angelic backing voices, coupled with, once again, a more "distant" Bjork, and - this time - an actually memorable, almost anthemic, chorus, with Bjork at her most conventionally "melodic". In agreement with the tradition of the previous two albums, she is making a grand exit, and while the overall lightness and dreaminess of the album does not very much agree with the word "grand", 'Unison' is as fine a compromise as could be.

So count me happy. Some have expressed disappointment over the record, calling it pretty but not very substantial - with which I most respectfully disagree. It is pretty and it is actually much more substantial than Homogenic; it just takes a few listens and a will not to confuse "lack of substance" with "subtlety" to sink in. Granted, if she continues in the same way, "subtlety" may easily turn to actual "boredom", but this should be taken as a warning, not a prediction.



Year Of Release: 2004

Last time I checked, "medulla" was not synonymous to "big tits", nor was it located anywhere near them. But in Bjork's crazy world, you never know.

Best song: SUBMARINE

Track listing: 1) Pleasure Is All Mine; 2) Show Me Forgiveness; 3) Where Is The Line?; 4) Vokuro; 5) Oll Birtan; 6) Who Is It; 7) Submarine; 8) Desired Constellation; 9) Oceania; 10) Sonnets / Unrealities XI; 11) Ancestors; 12) Mouth's Cradle; 13) Midhvikudags; 14) Triumph Of A Heart.

Well, at least she's not selling out. Praised be he (she) who don't dance to MTV's fiddle. She could have done it long ago, but she didn't. She's the best in the world. She IS the world...

...but really, that's not my way of thinking. I think that for Bjork, the danger of "selling out" is long gone. Ever since the debut album, every follow-up has been, in some way at least, less commercial than the preceding record, although, clever girl as she is, Bjork was always able to find new interesting ways of binding mass interest to her persona, enough at least to keep the sales steady and retain enough creative control on her record label (most of these "ways" had pretty little to do with the actual music, though. More people know about the dead swan story than have actually heard even 'It's Oh So Quiet', I'm sure.) So they got ol' mojo of "anti-commercial" working again, but it just don't work on yours truly.

I refuse to rate Medulla, because I don't know how to rate it. Say I give it a really high rating. I wanted to. Would it be correct? No, because once I'm through with this review, I am never ever going to listen to it again (except for two tracks on which please see below). Say I give it a really low rating. I wanted to! Would it be justifiable? No, because once I'm through with this review, I know I'm gonna regret it, because it really kept me intrigued every time I put it on. Okay, say I give it something in between. Would it be reasonable? By all means N-O, because Medulla is anything but middle ground. It's one of those really really few albums where you just have to take a radical stand; any stand that's non-radical is degrading and insulting - to the album, to Bjork as an artist, to your readers, to yourself. Now go ahead and blame me if you wish. For anything. I don't object.

Mind you, though, that Bjork's "achievements" on Medulla, whatever they be, aren't really tremendously "original". There are two things that visibly separate it from the lady's previous output (well, three if you count the amount of naked flesh on the album cover, but don't let me get carried away or we might start sussing over her videos, too). One is, indeed, the ardent lack of "commercial" material on here, and don't get me wrong - under "commercial" I very innocently mean "possessing at least some kind of some pop structure with some traces of conventional memorability". No 'Bachelorette', no 'It's Not Up To You', nothing. Instead, all of the space is given to Bjork's convolvolvolvolvolvolvolus-voluting vocal tapestries. We are already well acquainted with what she can do to her voice; now's the time to turn the former dessert into the main course, spicing it up with overdubs and loops a-plenty. Once you can sing this in the shower, you get 500 out of 500 possible points and get taken to the end game screen; problem is, unless you get technical assistance from the Valhalla staff, there's no way you can beat it.

The other important innovation is Bjork's conscious decline to use musical instruments other than her voice. Again, she's smart enough to understand that, no matter how much potential her vocal cords have, fourteen tracks of pure accappella won't get you positive reviews nohow. So only a few tracks are completely "bare", most of them short quasi-operatic outbursts like 'Show Me Forgiveness'; the rest features beat boxes and occasional atmospheric synth patterns. No orchestra, though, and no "live" instruments whatsoever; these are really really sooo obsolete, you know... In short, you're in for a bumpy ride, not for the faint-hearted at all.

And it's a ride that got me stumped, in all honesty. I can't - and won't - call it a musical revolution. "Anti-commercial" albums are quite common in this world, and as for relying on one's vocal powers to carry the entire album through, well, let's not forget Tim Buckley's Starsailor at least, released a good thirty-plus years before Medulla. On the other hand, this is a seriously individualistic artistic statement, and, unlike Metal Machine Music, for instance, it's possible to evaluate it on emotional as well as technical ground. The latter evaluation should come from somebody other than me; I can only say that obviously, a lot of effort went into the careful preparation of each of these tracks, and that it must have taken Bjork at least as much trouble to compose, perform, and overdub her parts as it took Captain Beefheart to lay the ground for Trout Mask Replica. The shorter tracks are particularly conundrum-like in that respect: the gradual unfurling of each of the two parts of 'Oll Birtan', for instance, should be a classy treat for everybody who's interested in the "music as mathematics" aspect of the business.

But alas - the "emotional" ground leaves me cold. I'm not ashamed to say that the only two songs that somehow managed to resonate with me are the ones that, well, really look like songs in the first place. There they are, stacked in the middle. 'Who Is It' has the closest thing to an "upbeat" rhythm, and the echoey chanting 'who is it, who is it' is the closest thing to a hook on this record. The perverse news here is that, given a slightly different treatment, you could actually easily turn the song into a vehicle for any select MTV "Diva" of the Shakira type: it's got the same jello-like structure that leaves a lot of room for "vocal emoting" and little else. It's the special bit of Bjork-over that gives it the edge. And then there's 'Submarine', awash in Geiger-counters, "underwater" keyboard sounds, and a surprisingly seducing (as opposed to headache-inducing in most other cases) falsetto overtone from the former pixie. I honestly like 'Submarine' very much, despite the fact that it hardly fits in with the rest of the album and looks much more like a stray Vespertine leftover, deemed too good to be forgotten.

As for the rest, well... Frankly speaking, I think all the hype finally went to her head. I'm still picking up traces of straightahead coolness all over the place, I am. For instance, that "whoooosh! whoooosh!" thing on 'Oceania' is marvelous. What is it? Sped-up vocal imitations of the wind? 'Ancestors' is sort of exciting to take in once you think of it as a vocal imitation of an orchestra tuning up. 'Where Is The Line' is the only song to use the actual sound of a string instrument, as well as employ the forces of guest stars whose rapped parts get sampled in the second half (I seem to remember Mike Patton as one of the collaborators). 'Vokuro' is serious, bitter, collected, and sounds like one of the Selmasongs translated into Icelandic. But still, all of these bits just don't get assembled into a collective thumbs up, nor does anything of the rest get assembled into a collective thumbs down.

Once again, the problem is that the album just seems WAY TOO SERIOUS for Bjork. That was my main trouble with Homogenic (and the main reason why I thought of Vespertine as a return to form), but it's exacerbated here thrice times three and more. There's a difference, you know, between the brain of a small kid goofing off in his fantasy world and the seriously deranged brain of a grown-up madman goofing off in his. Like Tom Waits once repeated after Peter Pan, 'I don't wanna grow up', except in this case, I don't want somebody else to grow up. I don't mind experimentation; I don't mind nonsensic lyrics (which are obviously not to be examined for meaning on this record - this is why she feels so at ease about singing several songs in Icelandic); but I do mind when one overreaches. When all is said and done, Bjork's voice is not one of the seven wonders of the world; and Bjork herself is not the female Messiah, although I have no doubt Medulla will certainly convert at least some people into believing the opposite. That's my presumption, maybe not yours; and I don't see how anybody who doesn't share this presumption could fall for the record.

Not that I didn't see it coming - not that I wasn't, at some time, intrigued to hear what it would sound like - not that I wasn't expecting my reaction to be like this. Hey, I'll go as far as to say that perhaps it was absolutely necessary to get something like this out of her system. And now that the ambition has been satisfied and the "peak of inaccessibility" has been reached (since it's pretty hard to imagine a record even more entangled coming out of her camp), it might be that we're in for upcoming cool treats of the post-peak period. After all, I've always liked Going For The One more than Topographic Oceans; and I've always loved The Spotlight Kid far better than Trout Mask Replica. So here's to whatever may follow. In the meantime, freak out, dear sirs, freak out.


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