Bjork, that one name conjures images of Bjork throughout the years, the wild child, swan dress wearing, gamine girl and on and on. It is no exaggeration to state that Bjork is one of the most original performers in modern music. She is an artist who never pulls her punches and is fully committed to following her musical muse wherever it leads. She is constantly defying categorization in any one musical genre. Bjork had been involved in music from early childhood through her adolescent Icelandic solo career thru punk bands and finally making a name for herself as the co-lead singer of the Sugarcubes. As early as 1991 Bjork had been pondering a solo career but decided to honour the contractual obligations of the Sugarcubes before pursuing that career path. Her first release Debut marked the start of her remarkable adult solo career. The album was more mainstream than the works created by the Sugarcubes, who were beloved by many but were more avant-garde pop in styling than “Debut”. Bjork titled the album Debut not because it was her first solo outing but because Bjork wanted to signify the start of something new.
Debut has been described by Bjork as filled with love songs to her then-boyfriend Dominic Thrupp, her producer Nellee Hooper and to life itself. Bjork interwove house, jazz, trip hop and more traditional pop structures into the collection. In retrospect Debut has been credited as one of the first albums of the 90’s to introduce electronic music into mainstream pop, the album transfigured house music into something the average listener could experience. In 2005 Bjork stated about Debut that she thought it was not as strong as her later efforts, “It is hard to judge yourself but I don’t think (Debut and Post) are my best.” “Debut” in some ways will always represent to many what is considered “Bjork Music” and her pop icon persona.
Bjork’s ideas about what she wanted to do with a solo outing changed over time. At first, she considered making a more jazz-influenced release. Bjork had half the album written before starting production, with some tracks such as Human Behaviour dating to her teens. She went searching for a producer and at one point really wanted a varied collection of producers to work on the album. In her search she became familiar with Corky Hale a jazz harpist and Oliver Lake a jazz saxophonist, both would eventually appear on the release. In the end Bjork selected Nellee Hooper who gained her respect after she heard his fabulous production ideas. Hooper introduced Bjork to studio technologist and programmer Marius De Vries who helped provide the style for the keyboards and synthesizers on the album. Hooper produced the first 10 tracks on Debut and with Bjork co-producing Like Someone in Love. Bjork produced The Anchor Song. Various professional session musicians were utilized in the recording.
Bjork’s record label completely under estimated how popular “Debut” would be, and had to rush to press more copies to meet demand. The album had five singles; Human Behaviour, Venus as a Boy, Play Dead, Big Time Sensuality and Violently Happy. The album charted #3 in the UK and #61 in the US. It went platinum in the US in 2001 and has worldwide sales of over 4.7 million. Bjork won various awards with “Debut”; the 1994 Brit Award for Best International Breakthrough Artist and Best International Female and received a Grammy award nomination for the video Human Behaviour. Critic’s opinions were generally positive with the release; “Debut” did better critically and commercially in the UK than in the US. The more muted US reaction can be explained by the fact that the US was in the grips of grunge and although the album spanned various genres, grunge was not one of them. Since its release it has been listed as 46th on NME’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and made Q Magazine’s 90 Albums of the 90s.
“Debut” is an album that married dance thump with wandering yearning introspection. In equal parts, her vocals were elastic and somersaulting but always with Bjork fully emotionally engaged. The album starts off with Human Behaviour a song that had been knocking around since Bjork first wrote it as a teenager. The lyrics aptly describe the enigma that is human behaviour with all its whims and crotchets. It acted as a perfect bridge from the works of the Sugarcubes; utilizing her iconic persona as it had been conveyed up until that point. The music is punctuated by the great bass and drum rhythms and various percussive effects as it moves from afrobeat to industrial club sound. Bjork does an amazing job with her vocal inflexion emphasizing the all over the place nature of human behaviour. It is a fantastic start to the album.
“Crying” reflected all the loneliness Bjork was feeling as she moved from city to city missing her lover. The glitchy club sound has a great keyboard and a dance beat that rides over the accompaniment. The song on the surface sounds very happy but a straight reading of the lyrics reveals it is in fact yearning and sorrowful. The percussive effects made for an ersatz signature to Bjork songs of this period. Song by song Bjork with Hooper on Debut was building a stellar recording that still impresses the listener today.
The delightful Venus as a Boy was a song she has admitted was about her then-boyfriend. It was an ode to love both in the everyday events and the erotic. It is a sweet confection that is made even better by the great underpinning beat. You can hear Bjork smiling throughout the song making it even more enjoyable. It is one of the sweetest songs in both mood and sound that Bjork, in my opinion, has released. The take away of the song is the best of the boy in the song brings out the best in the girl. Effective use of the strong arrangement makes for a swirling off-kilter vibe that is a little like falling in love.
The back story of There is More to Life than This is that Bjork had gone to a party and immediately left when she felt overwhelmed by the over the top celebrity fete. The song was written as a response to wanting to get away from the artificiality of the party into something real. On the track, she would rather leave the fabricated beauty and watch the sunrise. The whispered vocal is effective in making the listener feel they are in on Bjork’s inner most thoughts. Again the great beat makes for an undeniably danceable tune.
On Like Someone in Love Bjork does a spectacular cover of the beautiful Van Heusen Burke standard. The gorgeous harp makes for an ever so please song. It is heartfelt and allows her to open up and really deliver, displaying all of her control and the power in her voice. Her personality bursts through the song make it a pure delight. It also provides a glimpse into Bjork’s admiration for classic standards and her appreciating for the eternal beauty they convey. It was a track that was somewhat unexpected considering her prior work, but a perfect selection in keeping with the underlying themes of the album. Another unexpected track in many ways was Big Time Sensuality which was an awesome marriage of sound and getting your dance “on”. The song was about Bjork’s interactions with Hooper. It conveyed the excitement of love and a relationship. The lyric displayed two sides of the coin that makes for sensuality; “It takes courage to enjoy the hardcore and the gentle, big time sensuality.” It also extolled living for the moment; “I don’t know my future after this weekend and I don’t want to know.” The synths and percussion again build into a memorable song.
The song One Day again delivered the unexpected with a Bollywood vibe. The song is sung almost as a chant with a slower tempo but with a driving dance beat and fluttering synths. The song was illuminated by Bjork’s relationship at the time. It is almost akin to a hope-filled lullaby for the future as the song seems to be speaking to a child and pointing out all the promise of the future.
Airplane was inspired by her long-distance relationship and hardships Bjork and her then-boyfriend were experiencing. “I cannot live peacefully without you even for a moment.” … “I ‘m taking an aeroplane across the world to follow my heart.” Vocally Bjork is wearing her heart on her sleeve. It is also one of the most musically complex songs on the album with a left of centre arrangement by jazz saxophonist Oliver Lake. This song also displayed Bjork’s giddy risk-taking tendencies which would be more evident on her later albums.
Come to Me is a beautiful song filled with raindrop synths, padded drums and sweeping strings. It has a slower tempo with an ethereal sound that spirals around in a dreamlike atmosphere. Bjork puts on her imaginary armor to fight her lover’s battles; “I’ll take care of you protect you….come to me I’ll take care of you. You don’t have to explain I understand.” It is another stellar song that makes the release so powerful.
Violently Happy cemented the fact that in her personal life at this point Bjork was in a good place. Bjork is never one to hide her feelings. Here she seems to dance on the head of a pin demanding the presence of her beloved before in happiness she hurts herself. “Violently happy I’ll get into trouble real soon if you don’t get here baby.” Violently happy is happiness that you can not contain because you are so beside yourself with joy. It is happiness that is not calming but works as a catalyst. Sonically the track is stripped back at first and then switches to a dance beat with a quarter beat rhythm. The sound never overpowers Bjork’s vocal delivery but enhances it with its glitchy electronic feel.
The final song of the original release was The Anchor Song it is again a display of Bjork’s willingness to take risks. It is a sweet off-kilter song about deciding to live in the ocean rather than land. It is almost a tone poem; as it reflects all that would eventually develop in Bjork’s electronic driven creativity over her amazing career.
In a period when music was primarily made by men with guitars Bjork in many ways reconstructed pop music with the sheer force of her personality. She inadvertently created the blueprint for any artist who desires to break the mould just by being his/her individual eccentric self. Today she continues to jump at the chance to follow her muse down rabbit holes. Debut didn’t just establish Bjork’s solo career but also introduced the music world to genres that had been all but ignored in the mainstream. Bjork would go on to produce intriguing and unconventional works all the while generating a multitude of admirers. She would collaborate across artistic mediums and stay true to her convictions. Not many artists have had a career retrospective in the MoMa but Bjork has and it is a testament to her influence across artistic mediums. Debut is one of the most successful launches of a solo career in recent contemporary music history.