Icon: Bjork

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 09.23.10 in Icons

Bjork’s got a lot going for her: eccentric songwriting, visual presence, a smartly chosen bunch of collaborators, high-flying conceptual grandeur. More than anything, though, she’s got a voice like nothing else on the planet. It’s bizarre and lovely, a sound that seems at home both on radio hits and in avant-garde art spaces. It communicates at least as much as her songs themselves, and in fact presenting lyrics is pretty far from the point: unless you pay close attention, she might as well be singing the phone book in Icelandic. (She’s not, is she?) — Douglas Wolk

Studio LPs

Equal parts acerbic punk poet (her first band was called Spit & Snot) and butter-wouldn't-melt tune fairy, Reykjavik-born Björk lit up the gloomy post-grunge landscape with Debut (1993), her sparkling solo, erm, debut (in the U.K. at least). Freed from the art-rock pretensions of former band the Sugarcubes and boasting a smorgasbord of musical styles ranging from carefree freeze-funk ("Come to Me") to blissed-out trance pop ("One Day"), Top Thirty hits "Venus as a Boy" and "Big Time Sensuality" combined an acrobatic vocal style with air-tight arrangements courtesy of producer Nellee Hooper (the Soul II Soul member who did a celebrated remix of Massive Attack's landmark 1991 hit "Unfinished Sympathy"). If an interpretation of jazz standard "Like Someone in Love" accompanied by a harp may have overstated her Patti Smith via Amelie appeal, Debut retains its otherworldy allure, encapsulated in opening confessional "Human Behaviour." "There's no map/ And a compass won't help at all," she gasps, signposting the mountain path to weirdness since followed by everyone from Karen O to Bat for Lashes.

Having established herself on the pop stage with Debut, follow-up Post (1995) saw Björk's ambitions go widescreen.With everyone from Tricky to Howie B to 808 State's Graham Massey fighting over the producer's chair and a musical palette ranging from ambient dub ("Possibly Me") to strident techno-pop ("Army of Me") Post boasts a musical vision to match Cecil B. DeMille.

And then there's the lyrics. Bizarre, brazen and remorselessly tongue-in cheek, songs like "Enjoy" and "You've Been Flirting Again" are dark, delirious examinations of the mating game whilst "Hyperballad" is euphoric — "We live on a mountain/ Right at the top/ There's a beautiful view" — but only to disguise a damning rejection of consumerism. It was smash hit "It's Oh So Quiet" which kept the accountants happy, however. A reworking of Betty Hutton's Hollywood showtune "Blow a Fuse" delivered with a kindergarten cutesiness, confirming her role as indie-rock's reigning queen of weird. From this point on, Björk was in the big league.

Inspired both sonically and emotionally by the break-up of Björk's relationship with jungle star Goldie, Homogenic brilliantly juxtaposes strings and breakbeats to explore the dangerous heights and glacial depressions of that emotional landscape where love is at its most rarefied and intense. But while mid-'90s dance influences have dated its predecessor Telegram, the fractured loops here transcend any dance imperative, cracking through grand orchestral arrangements like fissures through pack ice. It's a serious and moody album, both angry and optimistic. The opening "Hunter" frames it as a search, where frustration with emotional cowardice ("Five Years," "Batchelorette") finds its match in a hope ("Alarm Call," "All Is Full of Love") that is anything but sentimental. Recorded in Spain with collaborators such as Mark Bell of LFO, veteran UK pop-electronica knob-twiddler Mark "Spike" Stent, Howie B. and the Icelandic String Octet, Homogenic marks the end of Björk's flirtation with dance and heralds her return to Iceland — the defiant early peak of an artist audibly finding both emotional and artistic maturity.

Vespertine is Björk's most serene and sensuous record. An album primarily about domestic and sexual bliss, it features some of the most intoxicatingly beautiful songs she has written: "Cocoon," "Aurora," "Heirloom." "Pagan Poetry" may be the single greatest track she has ever recorded.

The Björkian soundfield is much as it always is: skittering rhythms, warm keyboard tones, discreet "laptronic" pulses, plinking harps and swooshing strings, a general meshing of organic and synthetic textures. But her unique sonic palette is harnessed here in the service of hushed awe: womblike intimacy and occasional ecstasy.

Her extraordinary voice never sounded better. The urgent passion of "Pagan Poetry" is thrilling. The tremulous breathiness of her vocal on "Cocoon" — a song of sexual adoration for her artist husband Matthew Barney — is so vulnerably naked it's almost shocking: "He slides inside, half-awake, half asleep..."

After 1997's somber, elemental Homogenic, Vespertine is whispered, glimmeringly pretty. Certain tracks — "Undo," "It's Not Up to You," "An Echo, A Stain," "Sun in My Mouth," the closing "Unison" — are more drifting and hypnotic, less melodically arresting than others. But the floating mood of semi-somnambulism, of almost narcotic dreaminess, is maintained throughout. As she sings on "Undo," "it's not meant to be a struggle up here..."

Keyboards such as celeste and glockenspiel suggest the childlike feel of music boxes, complementing the often innocent wonder of Björk's voice. The gorgeous instrumental "Frosti" suggests the influence of Indonesian gamelan. In contrast, "Heirloom" and the opening "Hidden Place" up the tempo just enough to keep us on our toes.

No one has ever sounded remotely like this brave avant-garde sprite, this alternative diva. An acquired taste for many, she remains surely one of postmodern pop's few true geniuses. And the exquisite Vespertine will long be counted among her finest work.

Björk is at her best when building consistent, compelling sound-worlds for her ideas to inhabit, a feat she achieves by collaborating with equally idiosyncratic musicians. Medulla — an almost solely vocal work featuring veteran art-folk troubadour Robert Wyatt, vocal Houdini Mike Patton (ex-Faith No More), famed beatboxer Rahzel (the Roots), the electronic duo Matmos and Dokaka, and Icelandic, Inuit and British choirs — is no exception.

Medulla taps into the dark, sticky, vulnerable marrow of the spirit, vocalizing its deepest recesses and summoning a more primal mythos than its fairytale predecessor, Vespertine, by exploring the starting point of all human music — the voice. Yet, for all its comparative starkness, it's every bit as sensual as the previous album.

The electronic treatments range from industrial distortion to percussive glitches and dreamy layering, rarely descending into novelty. Instead, processed vocals combine with Rahzel's beatboxing and the naturally percussive elements of language to form an organic central framework for Björk's lead. She is careful not to shroud the songs in too much digital trickery: Icelandic-language tracks "Vokuru" and "Oll Birtan" have the simplicity of folk tunes, forming rough-edged natural sine waves of mesmerising beauty as they unfold.

For many, Medulla's immediate centerpiece will be "Who Is It," as gorgeous a pop song as Björk has ever written, or the sweet sea-fever of "Oceania" (written for the 2004 Summer Olympics) and these tracks are as necessary to Medulla as its eerie atmosphere and bursts of atonality. They reiterate what might be Björk's foremost achievement: it's not only her talent for exploration that so charms her listeners, it's also her absolute generosity as a songwriter in taking them with her, however alien the sonic route.

Live Albums

Few solo bows are as accomplished as Björk's Debut, which remains as bold a statement as when it first came out in 1993. But as accomplished as that record was, Björk, ever the adventurer, revisited and revised it just a year later on the "MTV Unplugged" session documented here.

While the studio version remains Björk's most accessible release, it's clear that the Icelandic musician was already keen on spanning continents and musical genres — her "Unplugged" band adds the likes of bedroom electronicist Leila Arab and noted classical/new music percussionist Evelyn Glennie to musicians who played on Debut, like world-electronic fusionist Talvin Singh on tabla. Live, Björk trades the record's club vibe for a vaguely spooky world-music ambience. Harpsichord riffs now form the backbone of "Human Behaviour" and "Venus as a Boy," while "One Day" builds on gamelan percussion. The only time the pace picks up is on "Crying," sustained by lickety-split standup bass.

It's telling that the super-dancey Debut cut "There's More to Life Than This" isn't included here; if you happen to think it's one of Björk's most underrated tracks, chances are you'll prefer sticking with the discofied joie de vivre of the album's studio version. But if you prefer the musician's more esoteric latter period, this live recording is an essential precursor of the experimentations to come.

The most surprising pop star of the new millennium is, like all true stars now, multifaceted. She's a club diva, an art snob, a folk chanteuse, a post-punk icon. But for Post, Björk was a rock star — a romantic heroine with a story to share and a clear, though not that simple, way of sharing it. Post's hits — the aggressive "Army of Me," the dreamy "Isobel" — were accessible sagas, coherent realizations of the experiments in arrangement and tone that Björk began on Debut. Post did what classic rock records do: it created a context within which her later, chancier efforts made sense.

This material helped Björk achieve a power and focus onstage that's memorably captured on this CD, most of which is culled from a 1997 performance at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. Instrumentation-wise, Björk still surprises — the set opens with, aside the Ice Queen herself, accordionist Yasuhiro Kobayashi. (Producers/sound manipulators Guy Sigsworth and Leila Arab add some nice twists, too.) But the Shepherd's Bush tracks share a vigor that Björk's later, more investigational live work doesn't always match. It's also fascinating to hear her really learning how to use her own instrument, training those familiar yelps and bleats into expressive vocalizations. The few selections from television tapings aren't quite as good, though the string-kissed version of this musical-comedy fan's most famous cover, "It's Oh So Quiet," is as fun as one would expect. All in all, Post Live is a very bright square in Björk's cosmic crazy-quilt.

Recorded mostly in 1998, when Björk was busy cramming her biggest gestures into moody little corners, Homogenic Live finds the show-tune goddess shrieking and sulking against a dramatically pent-up backdrop. Culled from her first three albums (with seven songs from Homogenic proper), the varied tracklist flows through shattered electronic beats by producer Mark Bell and grand orchestration by the Icelandic String Octet, who give icy details a warm rub. The future-shock single "Hunter" takes on an Old World feel, with organic accordion pushed to the foreground and strings haunting beats that mimic a parade band in a bad mood. Björk's voice takes center-stage in a swooning, airy rendition of "You've Been Flirting Again," but "Isobel" quickly returns to crinkly rhythms that call for more in the way of digestion; Bell's production hand waves over an antic mix that pans and zooms through the song's internal and external squirm. Such real-time electronic treatments lend these live versions extra dynamism-from the squint-inducing synth glare of "All Neon Like" to the industrial swirl and clang underlying a terrific take on "Human Behaviour." All the while, Björk sounds both commanding and commanded, her strong vocal presence answering to ears wowed by what the songs sound like alive and animated.

Remixes, Soundtracks and EPs

Pity the remix album. Usually thought of as a water-treader between official releases or as a nod to a dance scene the artist probably doesn't belong to, they've gotten a bad rap over the years. In the late '90s, it was even worse, because all manner of otherwise undanceable bands were hopping on the "electronica" bandwagon in an effort to be ahead of a curve that never actually arrived (no matter how many records the Prodigy sold). Cornerstone fact: Bush put out a remix LPonly be called Deconstructed, which might have poisoned the well for the rest of the members of the alt-village.

But while Björk's Telegram is indeed a collection of remixes (most of which originally appeared as B-sides to import singles from her second album Post), it shouldn't be dismissed as a mere stopgap. In fact, 13 years on, it's an important component in Björk's development as a recording artist.

Released a handful of months before Björk's game-changing third album Homogenic, Telegram shows Björk expanding the limits of her sound and diving even deeper into the sea of sonic weirdness that would eventually inform (and some would say mar) her 21st century output. Both her first two albums — 1993's Debut and 1995's Post — were pretty odd, full of funky keyboard orgies and the singer's trademark fairy voice. Post was an especially strange album, as it saw Björk rummaging through industrial thrum ("Army of Me"), the developing haunt of trip-hop ("Isobel") and a truly left field Tin Pan Alley rave-up ("It's Oh So Quiet"). Telegram takes those urges and twists them into full-blown obsessions, spinning Björk's fractured worldview further and further into a universe inhabited only by her (and partner Matthew Barney, probably).

"My Spine" is a great example, as it consists of little more than Björk's voice and a jittery, out-of-tune xylophone filling in the gaps. Somehow, even without a single drum, she manages to create a complicated rhythmic stew, apparently with the power of her will. That's followed by "I Miss You (Sunshine Mix)," a deep, groovy, swaggering song that takes the original's jittery worldbeat biting and turns it into New Jack Swing. The remix of "Isobel" brings in the groovy jazzbo sound that Björk used in her live performances during the Homogenic era, creating a sort of live remix using organs, deep bass, samplers and strings.

In fact, listening to Telegram now becomes a fun game of "Spot the Kernel" that would later became full albums. The punishing, distorted rhythmic attack on "Enjoy (Further Over The Edge Mix)" would pop up later on Medulla, while the moody hum of "You've Been Flirting Again (Flirt Is A Promise Mix)" wouldn't have sounded out of place on Vespertine. "You've Been Flirting Again" is also the clearest antecedent to Homogenic, as it floats mostly on a languid orchestral ocean — add a beatbox, and you've got "All Neon Like." But don't think that Telegram can only be enjoyed as an anthropological artifact (either of the era or of Björk's career). Most of these songs are too strange for radio but not at all alienating, especially considering how light and dreamy Björk had (the Homogenic era represented her greatest control of her instrument). Telegram works the same way the best Björk albums do: in spite of itself, and gloriously so.

Equal parts retrospective, autobiography, and objet d'art, Björk's Family Tree gives fans a very special glimpse at the creative processes behind her work, collecting two decades' worth of her music and words in a unique, lavishly packaged set. A white paper sleeve embossed with work by Icelandic artist Gabriela Fridriksdottir holds a translucent, petal-pink plastic case containing five 3" discs of "Roots," "Beats," and "Strings"; a collection of Björk's favorite songs from her albums; "Words," a booklet of selected lyrics; and an essay by Björk explaining the genesis of this set, which manages to use phrases like "taxonomic structure" and "a new Icelandic modern musical language" without sounding too ambitiously academic. Scattered throughout are Fridriksdottir's paintings, sculptures, and illustrations, which mix a playful, organic sensibility with clean lines that are both futuristic and childlike. They complement Björk's work, and especially this project, perfectly, since Family Tree emphasizes her beginnings as a classically trained but rebellious young musician and her current incarnation as an artist who unites the cerebral with the emotional and the avant-garde with the accessible. Family Tree's detailed packaging is notable not only for its beauty, but because its very intricacy forces the viewer/reader/listener to slow down, savor, and contemplate the set's contents instead of consuming them immediately. This sets the mood for a very personal experience, which begins with the first disc -- Björk's greatest hits as chosen by the artist herself. Technically, there aren't many of her "hits" on this compilation -- favorites such as "Human Behavior" are missing here, but appear on the fan-selected Björk's Greatest Hits (which was released on the same day as Family Tree). Instead, Björk opts for intimate album tracks like "Unravel" and "You've Been Flirting Again." Even the singles on the collection, such as "All Is Full of Love" and "Hyperballad," tend toward introspection despite their state-of-the-art productions. As with the rest of the set, the greatest-hits disc doesn't pretend to be a democratic representation of her work. Only one track from Debut, the enchanting "Venus As a Boy," is on the disc, while Selmasongs: Music From the Motion Picture Dancer in the Dark's "Scatterheart" and "I've Seen It All" both made the cut (and deservedly so -- the only problem with Björk's Greatest Hits is that it didn't include either of these songs). Instead, Family Tree is an unrepentantly subjective look at Björk's work from the past two decades, going back to some of her earliest recordings. Though "Roots" doesn't include anything from her 1977 self-titled album or her jazz effort Gling Glo, it does feature 1980's "Glora," a pretty, quirky flute melody that shows that even at 15, Björk was figuring out how to integrate her classical training into her own sensibilities. "Sidasta Eg," from 1984, is an eerie take on indie/dream pop that suggests her work with the Sugarcubes as well as her later solo efforts. Disc one of "Roots" also includes the 1983 Kükl track "Fulgar," which in its post-punk artiness also points to her Sugarcubes days. That era is well-represented by "Ammaeli," the Icelandic version of their hit "Birthday," and "Mama," both of which hold up well despite the somewhat glossy, dated-sounding production. As good as the Kükl and Sugarcubes tracks are, their inclusion only emphasizes that while Björk may work well as part of a group, her own music (even in its earliest stages) is more interesting. Disc two of "Roots" offers a look at some of her mature solo work in different forms and stages, such as the demos of "Immature" and "Joga" that are very much works in progress, but no less beautiful because of that. The disc also includes "Generous Palmstroke," a live collaboration between Björk and harpist Zeena Parkins, as well as "Mother Heroic," a track from the Vespertine sessions that, like that album's "Sun in My Mouth," combines a delicate celeste melody with lyrics borrowed from poet e.e. cummings. While the song isn't quite as striking as the work that did end up on that album, it's still lovely, and Björk is the sort of artist whose outtakes are as worth hearing as her finished work. The single-disc "Beats" emphasizes the electronic aspects of her work and delves further into her demos, offering a surprisingly smooth, blissed-out version of "The Modern Things" co-produced and programmed by Graham Massey, her Post collaborator. He also gives 1994's "Karvel" a surprisingly straightforward dance treatment, albeit with unconventional drums -- it sounds more like an 808 State track with Björk vocals than an actual Björk song. Her work with Mark Bell and Mark "Spike" Stent sounds more like finished album tracks; "I Go Humble" mixes a syncopated beat with fuzzy keyboards, and while it's a little less special than what ended up on Post, it's most definitely worth hearing, as is "Nature Is Ancient," which resembles what "Big Time Sensuality" would've sounded like with Homogenic's burbling, distorted production. The two discs of "Strings" go in the opposite direction, accenting the organic and academic side of her music by presenting highlights of her collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet. From the lush versions of "Possibly Maybe" and "Bachelorette" to the percussive take on "Cover Me" to "Hunter"'s driven arrangement, it's clear why Björk has worked with the quartet repeatedly -- their expressive, flexible approach to classical and classical-inspired music fits her aesthetic perfectly. And while "Words" -- the collection of lyrics from songs like "Pluto," "Cocoon," "Headphones," and "Pagan Poetry" -- may not be as immediately exciting to fans as the demos and unreleased tracks, the economy of Björk's lyrics deserves to be celebrated, as it's often overshadowed by the dense, dazzling beauty of her music. With a line like, "On the surface simplicity/But the darkest pit in me/Is pagan poetry" or a phrase like "emotional landscapes" she manages to communicate a wealth of feelings in an abstract, yet precise, manner. This seemingly contradictory approach extends to all of Björk's work -- though she's on the cutting edge of music and is resolutely individual, she's still popular enough to spawn parodies on Saturday Night Live and Spitting Image and cause a furor over wearing a swan dress to the Oscars. Fortunately, she's also popular enough to be able to make sets like Family Tree available on a relatively mainstream scale. A mini-museum of Björk's art with a depth that belies its size, Family Tree's exhaustive, scholarly approach works simply because her music is worth studying in the detail that the set provides so amply.