David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath
Björk “Debut” (1993): 20th Anniversary
It’s astounding, in hindsight, to think of a heavily-accented, pint-sized Icelandic singer, armed with scat-vocalese and eccentrically-inclined futuristic arrangements, sitting atop the music world for this long. Even at the age of 47, Björk is still an experimentalist virtuoso with a cosmic vision. Say what you will about Björk, but she’s maintained an exceptionally high standard of musical integrity, singing with guts, her bewilderingly barbaric shrieks and yawps now familiar over the rooftops largely because of that sincerity and incorruptibility. Today marks the 20th anniversary of Björk’s classic “Debut”, an album, if any, which synthesizes her belief in music as magic. It shows that underneath all her idiosyncrasies, it’s passion and the ineffable joy of trying to impart it, that is the bridge between the work and her fans’ emotional connection to it.
Over the years, it’s become clear that Björk exists in her own sphere. Sure, I’ve seen the documentary video of her crate-diving for the latest vinyl releases and musical obscurities, seemingly trying to remain grounded in what’s new. But in truth she’s always been an island unto herself, whether it’s her demiurgic wardrobe or the way she creates music. I recall in another documentary, watching Björk at an Iceland retreat, giddily showing off a new recording instrument that she used to capture the sound of waves and bubbling noises from naturally occurring phenomena she intended to turn into samples for a song. Even then, she was ahead of the game, discovering then what we now define as “found sounds”. “Debut” was generally well-received by critics back in 1993, but in reading old reviews, I was surprised to find a number of them negative and missing the mark for some reason or another. Rolling Stone writer, Tom Graves, said of the record: “Debut is (an) utterly disappointing result. Rather than sticking to rock & roll, Debut is painfully eclectic. Producer Nellee Hooper has sabotaged a ferociously iconoclastic talent with a phalanx of cheap electronic gimmickry. Björk’s singular skills cry out for genuine band chemistry, and instead she gets Hooper’s Euro art-school schlock.”
He seems genuinely disappointed with Björk’s move from the Sugarcubes’ ferociously untamed world of “Motorcrash”, “Delicious Demon” and “Fucking in Rhythm and Sorrow”, into the electronic constructs of “Big Time Sensuality” and “Venus As a Boy”. Village Voice writer, Robert Christgau, had similar complaints, referring pejoratively to the record’s “eccentric instrumentation, electronic timbres” and “self-involved vocal devices.” But in “Debut” Björk really was grafting the house and techno world with her more humanistic sense, and emotional sensibilities. (Even the album cover seemed to come with a human touch, with its supplicate pose, as if in offering, hoping fans would like the music.) From it’s opening track, “Human Behavior” — metronomic clips, electronic textures, and off-kilter noises are the framework buzzing around her very real voice, which is both reductive and expansive. About human behavior Bjork sings, “And there is no map! / And a compass wouldn’t help at all!” And if you’d ask her fans, it’s the feeling of the words when she sings them that’s important to them, perhaps even more than the meaning.
Some of the songs on the record may not be breaking new ground, but they’ve become part of people’s lives. A song like “One Day”, with its steady pedestrian house beat (and baby coos) becomes a vehicle (like many of her best songs) for wails, beautiful nonsensical scats, and exclamatory phrases like, “I can feel it! / I can feel it!” The whispery, string-led “Venus as a Boy”, felt like a touching ode to new love and metro-sexuality. In other words, this was a girly track, but young, intelligent men could luxuriate in it too. (“He believes in beauty.”) A song I play a lot, “There’s More to Life Than This”, has one of the sexier club beats around. The song verses, taken by themselves, may be a trifle, but Björk intones them with life, love, sensuality, and excitement. What fan doesn’t wait for the fade out part as a cue to sing along in faux-Björk voice: “We could nick a boat / And sneak off to this island / I could bring my little ghetto-blaster / There’s more to life than this”?
Admittedly, “Someone In Love” felt out of place, and I can understand someone not understanding the exotics of “Aeroplane”. But falling into the gentle sway of “Come to Me” is just so easy. The killer track on here is “Big Time Sensuality”, another song about new love, with sexually-charged lyrics, that can’t possibly have been unintended. (“Something huge is coming up” — in building repetition. And her deliciously playful phrasing, “Big time sin-sin-suality.”) Watch the Bjork MTV unplugged performance below. I’m still amazed at how quickly Björk can shift her vocals from volcanic to delicate in the span of a verse — just as her stage-pacing makes her seem part tiger, part seducer — both vicious and lovely. (She pushes that mic to the limit.) In this MTV video for “Big Time Sensuality”, she re-configures the track into some kind of Maharishi delight, rolling and trilling those Icelandic Rs with a quiet fury. The song contains one of my favorite “Debut” lines: “I don’t know my future after this weekend! / And I don’t want to.”
I think New York Times music writer Ben Ratliff hit the right note about Björk’s talent: “Her sound as a singer, that is to say her personality, phrasing, timbre, accent, the melodic adornment she uses on any and all songs, is overwhelming and stubbornly her own. It reduces everything else going on around it to something much less consequential. It is her singing, what else do you need to know?” Björk’s an artist through and through. Restlessly curious. Musically generous, but without compromise.