Album : Debut – Björk
Review : NME, 3 July 1993
Author : Johnny Dee
LET’S ADMIT it, the Sugarcubes resided in a border town south of Obscure and just north of Wacky. They juddered and lurched like difficult children, throwing toys against walls, scratching non-existent itches. They were the Euro B-52’s. But there was, above everything, that voice, an alien screech that coughed up puffin feathers, cracked, screeched and soared like nothing you’d heard before.
Five years on and ‘Birthday’ still sounds ridiculously stark and extraordinary because of it. But, then, as you found yourself consumed by its strange beauty, in walked Einar The Irritant barking a bizarre psycho-babble rap, bringing even the most goo-goo eyed back down to earth with an ugly bump.
Is should, therefore, come as some relief to find Björk left to journey alone without the ideas of a group cluttering up the landscape. The surprise, though, is that she has fashioned an album as elaborate, unique and fresh as ‘Debut’. It’s hard not to bellyflop straight into the deep end, cry, “Album of the year, end of story”, and float off on a sea of hyperbole. ‘Debut’ takes you to strange, uncharted places. No group could make an album like this – too many ears to please. But, although this is very much Björk’s album (you get the impression that these are songs she’s carried in her mind, like secrets, for years), the contribution of producer Nellee Hooper is vital. The man behind Soul II Soul‘s symphonies, he has managed to throw manifold ideas into this exotic soup without making it sound cluttered and overdone.
With his involvement and Björk’s previous solo dalliance with 808 State it would be easy to assume she’s become a fully fledged house diva. Not so; ‘Debut’ may walk the same side of the street but it wanders into jazz, film soundtracks, pop too. Heck, there’s even a couple of songs Babs Streisand wouldn’t blink at covering. And then there’s the just plain weird (natch).
The first three tracks are built from hypnotic loops. On ‘Human Behaviour’ a swampy kettle drum jazz vibe circles around Björk’s rasping larynx, trying to find a melody but eventually settling for the search. ‘Crying’ swims on a niggling piano riff, while the wonderful ‘Venus As A Boy’ creates an Arabic mantra. Here, as on most of the album, the tonsil gymnastics are kept to a minimum, but it’s still a vastly disarming sound: a voice only a lifetime of Marlboro abuse or a guttural foreign language where people have names like Gudmundsdottir could create.
There’s a bonkers part in ‘There’s More To Life Than This’, though, where she sounds positively possessed. Allegedly recorded live in the Milk Bar toilets, a muffled house beat chunders away somewhere in the distance amid giggling chatter, then a door is closed and Björk is left to sing alone about nicking boats and sneaking off into the night. This woman is quite patently barmy.
But even this is ill preparation for ‘Like Someone In Love’. Accompanied only by 80-year-old harpist Corki Hale, it’s the kind of tearful ballad you’d expect to find in the sad interlude of some crackly old black and white Judy Garland film. More fun, madness and surprise follows – the pulsating grind of ‘Big Time Sensuality’ and ‘Violently Happy‘ plus the sweet unearthly breeze of ‘One Day’ which ripples along to baby gurgles and ambient fizzes.
This is an album that believes music can be magical and special. It will either puzzle you or pull you into its spell. And if you fall into the latter category, ‘Debut’ will make every other record you own seem flat, lifeless and dull by comparison.
JC adds : Anyone who is familiar with my own past postings on this album will be more than aware that my thoughts very much echo those of Mr Dee.
There you go, the grumpiness from yesterday has been forgotten already.