1993 – Debut (One Little Indian)
Iceland's Björk Guðmundsdóttir may indeed be the most important musical artist of the 1990s – in the English language, that is (even though English isn't her native tongue). I really can't think of another 90s'-era artist/band/musician that combined her stunning vitality and progressive musical vision with commercial success and listener-accessibility, not to mention her amazing ability to sing and perform live. You can hear Björk's 1977 Iceland-only LP on YouTube these days, and you can see videos of her performing with Tappi Tíkarrass in the early 1980s when she was still in her mid-teens. She of course went on to international success in The Sugarcubes, circa 1986 to 1992.
In about 1992, though, Björk seems to have wanted something
different (and, after all, The Sugarcubes' commercial fortunes were
going down a bit). What I think is, Björk, like anyone who is
extremely talented and is reaching a stage of maturity in life, simply
wanted more independence and more of a chance to be like a baws!
It was a good move.
I think another thing she probably wanted was to groove a bit more.
Not that you couldn't dance to The Sugarcubes if you wanted, but
according to my memory (I had their first album about 24 years
ago), their sound was very spacious and open and "airy". Björk
maybe wanted something heavier-hitting, a bit sexier, and a bit
more electronic. She was "completely mad about Kraftwerk and
Tangerine Dream", etc., from the 1970s, so it seems she had liked
digital sounds for a long time. And it's easier to get those sounds
if you drop a band of equals and hire the programmers and
musicians yourself. Björk also said she was extremely disappointed
after going to see rock bands in the late 1980s, during international
tours with The Sugarcubes, because they were all doing the same
boring thing, and so she started going to clubs instead.
Which is kinda how I myself felt back in '93, when I was a teen. The whole alternative rock bands, man!, thing was already getting tiresome by then. I got Debut back in '93, and absolutely loved it. It was just so fresh. There is a fabulous mix of electronics, a "real"-band combo that's bass- and keyboard-heavy, and Björk's once-in-a-lifetime voice (more of which later).
Then, what about the songs? About Debut (1993), Björk once said: "I kinda picked the greatest hit[s] of my songwriting... last 10 years or so... [written] all in my house in Iceland, after my son had gone to bed." She also said: "I wrote the melody for 'Human Behaviour' as a kid. A lot of the melodies on Debut I wrote as a teenager and put aside because I was in punk bands and they weren't punk."
Finally, she needed a co-producer, and that became Nellee Hooper (after she first did some other work with some others). He went on to do some pretty mainstream music in later days, but back in the late 80s/early-90s he was known for electronica and trip-hop records. Voila! She was ready to go.
Okay, so let's run through the tracks on this wonderful album:
"Human Behaviour", which was Björk's very first international single in June '93, is a very good song. The fat bass grabs you from the first bars and doesn't let go. The lyric, by the way, is supposedly expressing humans from an animal's point of view. A line that sets the tone for the whole album, perhaps, is "There is no map"!, because, indeed, this record is going in any number of directions. By the way, this song has a loud and cool melodic riff that pops up a couple of times – it sounds like a guitar, but is undoubtedly a keyboard. What's a bit odd about this track, for an opener, is that it's mid-tempo. It kind of lulls you into the album. But nicely!
The first bouncy, danceable track is "Crying". I was surprised, years later, to see that this song was never issued as a single (four others were), because it's very memorable and has a great melody. Another bouncy keyboard-bass riff propels it along, and we get to hear Björk's voice in full bloom for the first time, and damn she can sing! The chorus goes:
Crying 'cause I need you
Crying, I can feel you
Crying 'cause I need you
Crying 'cause I care
which reads as generic enough, but from this woman's magical throat it turns into a riveting noise that makes you sit up and want to pay more attention. The track ends with the age-old production trick of silencing everything except the backing vocals, and it works beautifully, adding yet another shimmering layer to this shiny musical cake.
Great groove, awesome melody, and Iceland's best voice. "Crying" is just fabulous.
You'd think you're into something very left-of-center as "Venus As A Boy" first hits your ears. The percussion sound is quite odd, and there's another fat (less tuneful) bass riff. Once our girl's vocal arrives, however, we feel we're in a safe place with a very simple, familiar harmonic pattern. It's another mid-tempo song, but this track has probably the best melody on the whole record (it was the second single). It's hard to dislike a song that starts with the line: "His wicked sense of humour / suggests exciting sex". But then the pretty and frequently-repeated chorus – "He believes in beauty / He's Venus as a boy" – goes all Hallmark card. What we've got here is a case of nasty verses and innocent choruses... which is somehow very Björk-ish. In the second verse, she tells us: "He's exploring the taste of her arousal". Oh yeah!
Björk, by the way, was way-into Bollywood musicals and such in this period, and she apparently wanted "Venus As a Boy" and a few other songs to sound somewhat like Indian soundtracks. The strings, heard in some prominence on this track, do not sound very "Indian" in style to me, personally, but I'm far from an expert on that. In any case, they were (according to Wiki) arranged by Talvin Singh, in Bombay, and recorded by actual Bollywood soundtrack musicians. Vibraphone is here, too.
Like all the tracks on Debut, this song is very well-produced.
In the early 90s, one of the clubs Björk liked visiting was, evidently, The Milk Bar in London, where (according to the sleeve notes) "There's More To Life Than This" was "recorded live". This is a really funny, uptempo track with big beats and, not surprisingly, a dance-floor feel. That "feel" is enhanced by the narrative, which posits Björk as singing the song inside the club (which, seemingly, she actually did, at The Milk Bar – can anyone explain to me how that was possible?). Suddenly, she runs off to the bathroom, maybe, or somewhere just outside the club, and continues singing, with the "noise" of the song itself suddenly lowered, just as it would sound to you if you were there. She wants to get out of the club, you see, since it's early morning and "it's getting boring". She and her friend (you?) could steal a boat and "sneak off to this island"... but they'd have to rush back to town to get the baker's early morning bread. There's not really more to this song that this, but it's another winner – especially Björk's voice, as usual.
Then, a change of pace and a surprise. The previous track gently blends into the 1940s' jazz tune, "Like Someone In Love" (previous sung by Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby, of all people). What's more surprising is that Björk's take on it isn't all that different from Dinah's or Bing's. Harpist Ms. Corky Hale (a jazz musician) is the main instumentalist here, and yeah that harp just works a treat. The average trip-hopping popster singer could not pull off this song, folks. If anything, Björk sings with a lot of restraint, but still totally owns it. Did I mention she can sing? Nary a beat on this track, by the way. Mellow as hell.
"Big Time Sensuality" hit radio and MTV about the time Björk was touring the US and Canada, and it went kind of..., er big time (actually it was the "Fluke Minimix" that was the hit single – I prefer the original LP track, however). Everyone of age back then remembers the video of Björk dancing around on a truck in New York City:
Cool stuff, actually. And it's a great song, maybe this album's best. It has a big chorus that kicks in with some simple keyboard parts to beef it up, and a classic all-over-the-place but right-on-target vocal. After the choruses, Björk pulls out all the vocal tricks – oohing and ahhing, growling, scat-singing, you name it. She's just having fun, and so are we. Killer song that sounds as fresh now as it did in '93.
Next is the spacey and lighter "One Day". It starts off with samples of (I assume) the singer's little son mumbling and a very trip-hop, Portishead-like intro. It's all mellow for a minute and a half, but when Björk sings her first "I can feel it!", the tone changes to intense. All because of that amazing voice that can seemingly create any mood it wants to.
This tune's lyrics are very Björk-ian trippy stuff about the atmosphere getting lighter and a future "eruption that never lets you down". Look, forget it – you don't need to understand a word she's singing on this whole album, actually (I didn't for about 20 years). Just listen to that pinpoint-clear voice as it hits all those notes and enjoy the masterful song-construction.
Another mid-tempo tune arrives with "Aeroplane". Jazz-man Oliver Lake's saxophone is all over the opening bars, before Björk announces that she cannot live without her man, even for a moment, and therefore she's "taking an aeroplane" to follow her heart. Whoever this dude is, he's got a very devoted Björk. My favorite lyric here is:
One word on the phone
makes me happy,
but one touch, directly,
makes me ecstatic.
There are less prominent keyboards than usual on this song, which is quite musically adventurous. The saxophone breaks really stand out, for example, and give the record yet another unique flavor. (This track sounds like it would fit even better on the Icelander's next LP, Post.)
"Come To Me" is probably my least-favorite song on Debut, but it's still a worthy cut. That bass-line is kind of getting over-familiar at this point, and the arrangement is not dissimilar to a few other (better) tracks on the album. I guess if you're hearing it in isolation, though, it's quite a decent song. I like this lyric:
You know that I adore you
You know that I love you
So don't make me say it;
It would burst the bubble
Some slow, deep, distorted vocals start off the next song in moody fashion, but some uptempo percussion soon signals that this might get faster... and, boy, does it ever. A fast, snaky keyboard riff begins to cycle, and a really fast beat starts up. Then, the voice. Now, we're nicely into a great track, "Violently Happy". I mean, who else but Björk would name a song that? This is another lyric of strangely-expressed total love for a guy, so we can perhaps assume Björk had it bad for someone while writing some of these (newer) songs. The melody of the verses is rather simple and subdued, but the chorus is bright and really jumps out, as does the voice, as ever. A great song, this was another single and a hit on the dance-floors. (The video features Björk wielding scissors in a padded room and ripping apart a Teddy bear. As you do.) I feel like this is a really important track on the record because it's one of the best and fastest songs, and it's very near the end. This album ain't petering out!
And then the last one: "The Anchor Song", produced by Björk alone. Oliver Lake's saxophone is again all over this moody, slower tune, in which the narrator intends to drop anchor under the ocean and make her home there, for good. The minimal instrumentation somehow allows the layered horn parts, which enter only between Björk's verses, to sound like the tides of the ocean. A very pretty and distinctive way to end the record.
There's not really much of anything to criticize about this great "debut", which is easily rave-worthy. It's a stunning work by the recently liberated Björk. I mean, I guess if we're being picky we could stick some barbs into her lyrical approach, which is pretty out there, but it is also very purely artistic and honest (not to mention in a foreign language). I don't doubt that she "means" everything she sings, and it wasn't like she was doing herself any commercial favors by singing such idiosyncratic lyrics. She really wanted to express herself in her own way, and she did. I respect that.
More than anything, it's just a pleasure to listen to Björk's unique and timeless voice and vocal approach. You can shut off all the instrumentation here and listen to only her voice, and it's still a great record. The fact that the songwriting is so good is just a cherry on top. Let's give Nellee Hooper some credit, too.
By the way, I suddenly miss 1993....