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A Guide to Björk in 10 Songs

on November 20, 2017, 12:00am
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Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

With nine explosive records (plus a 10th on its way, Utopia), two movie soundtracks, countless self-produced remixes, a collection of cinematically jarring music videos, and a wardrobe that exists beyond the realms of avant-garde, Björk is hard to ignore. She has remained a mainstay in music for over 20 years, led by unceasing experimentation that doesn’t allowed her to settle into a pop star omnipresence. Björk doesn’t make easily digestible radio candy. She crafts storybooks that explore the inner workings of her mind, her body, her relationships. Every part of a Björk album — the cover art, the videos, the production — exists within a larger narrative that she’s making the listener work to unravel. Her music exemplifies what much of pop music lacks: a real human experience.

Whether you’ve consciously listened to her music or not, you’ve heard her; traces of Björkian sound permeate the music industry (consider: Grimes, Radiohead, The Knife). But if you didn’t grow up on Björk, you’re more than likely of the “never really listened to her” camp or the “didn’t she wear that swan dress?” persuasion. Indeed, an entry-way into Björk is hard to gauge. The minute you think you understand, you don’t. To listen to Björk is to accept disillusionment; you could spend weeks with her body of work and still be discovering new gems.

Björk stretches and challenges the possibilities of music. Jazz, electronic, rock, and classical are just a few of the styles she blends to create her genre-defying sound. She embraces different perspectives with a wide collaborative reach that spans from Thom Yorke to Timbaland. Like her music, Björk is complex and ever-evolving. Changing relationships and locations inspire new sounds and ideas. Autobiographical records channel her questions about identity, sexual desire, love, and desperation. Costumed performances and otherworldly videos complement and further her multifaceted artistry. Björk is a mastermind curator, a producer, a DJ, an actress, an icon, an artist; but above all, Björk is a musician. What follows is the fruit of her genius.

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AVANT-ROCKSTAR / A ROAR IS BORN

“Birthday” from Life’s Too Good (1988)

Björk’s ethereal timbre was recognized early on; after releasing her first album at the age of six, she went on to spearhead a slew of punk groups and eventually front the Icelandic alternative rock band, The Sugarcubes. Their cult favorite, “Birthday”, along with Björk’s iconic snarl-cry, received international attention. The song gleams with magical naivety as she envisions the world through a young girl’s eyes. Lo-fi, jangly guitars, akin to those of The Smiths or Joy Division, create a dreamy atmosphere for her voice to explore. Shaky and childlike, she recalls “fly-wings in a jar” and “keep[ing] spiders in her pocket.” That’s when the roar comes in, booming like something you’ve been waiting to hear your whole life. She possesses a controlled chaos, an excitement that she’s trying to restrain for the rest of the song. The vignette gets fuzzy once the little girl’s neighbor is introduced. Almost whispering, Björk sings: “They saw a big raven; it glided down the sky, she touched it…/ Sows a bird in her knickers, they’re smoking cigars, lie in the bathtub, chain of flowers.” There have been mixed theories about whether the words reflect a child’s innocent crush, a victim of pedophilia, or a woman’s coming of age. Björk has said that the song is about the innocent, erotic desires of a little girl, a topic most “pop stars” wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Her lyrics paint a landscape that her vocals color with raw emotion. You don’t know exactly what she means, but you know exactly how she feels. That’s the quintessential beauty of Björk — to always be finding new meaning.

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ECSTACY EMBODIED

“Big Time Sensuality” from Debut (1993)

After splitting from The Sugarcubes, Björk moved to London to pursue her solo career. Spending time in London’s underground club scene further informed her practice as she began to draw more heavily from house, jazz, and electronic music. This is also where she started building a network of collaborators; Debut was co-produced by the renowned Nellee Hopper, whose repertoire includes Smashing Pumpkins and Sinead O’Connor, to name a few. “Big Time Sensuality” was the fourth-released single off Debut and her first song to chart in the US. Bouncy keyboards and a groovy electronic bass surround Björk’s airy growls and swooping high notes, “It takes courage to enjoy it/ The hardcore and the gentle/ Big time sensuality.” Notwithstanding the song title, there’s no commonplace sexuality here; instead, we revel in the pure excitement and intimacy that Björk creates. “I don’t know my future after this weekend/ And I don’t want to.” She’s high on the moment, infatuated with life: her friends, herself, the city. Her voice swells and then drops – spiking and bursting like a kid who can’t sit still. And she doesn’t. The music video is an enchanting five minutes of Björk dancing and singing on the back of a truck driving through New York City. Björk’s charismatic dance moves and facial contortions embellish her almost sprite-like appearance, wide-eyed with hair arranged in a wild array of tiny buns and a long slip dress.

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A TECHNO CLOUD ROLLS IN

“Army Of Me” from Post (1995)

“Army of Me” encapsulates a dark-tinged ’90s retrofuturism. The industrial, grinding beat puts her primal soprano into new context. As the opening song on Post, “Army of Me” offers a stark introduction to the eclectic album; Björk experiments with techno, synth, and sampling, distorting a Led Zeppelin drum line over throbbing bass. The glowing whimsy of Debut is abandoned in a fit of fury: “If you complain once more, you’ll meet an army of me.” The song was inspired by her brother’s detrimental slackerhood, but also serves as a message to self-sorry suckers who, in the words of Björk, “don’t get their shit together.” Post marks a transition from frenzied buoyancy to focused experimentation and self-analysis, and “Army of Me” is the blunt lead.

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BJÖRK’S DIARY

“Jóga” from Homogenic (1997)

Björk streamlines her experimental, genre-bending efforts for Homogenic, fusing electronic and classical music. The result is a fairly uniform (and stunning) album considering its conceptually diverse predecessors. Björk’s guiding force is found in the tension between the abundant natural landscape and the über-modern technology of her native Iceland. Beats crash and build to mountain-like heights, blending organic sounds of the Icelandic String Octet with cutting electronic abstractions. “Jóga” has widely been described as “volcanic” due to its eruptive drop and the flowing intensity of her vocals. The strings sound like they’re weeping aloft an electronic heartbeat. Björk once again marvels at the human experience with this song. Written for her best friend, she praises their relationship as being a beacon, illuminating the intricacies of being: “Emotional landscapes / They puzzle me / Then the riddle gets solved / And you push me up to this.” The equally fantastical video sweeps and breaks apart surreal Icelandic landscapes, building toward an image of Björk on a mountaintop, ripping her chest open. Vulnicura, her 2015 record, would include a similar chest-ripped-open image on its cover. Her introspection (literally and figuratively) continues to grow and deepen with Homogenic, perhaps most prominently on “Jóga.”

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Minimalism & Domestic Intimacy

“Pagan Poetry” from Vespertine (2001)

The swan dress that accompanied this album is far from the most intriguing thing about it. Stripped down and stirred up, Björk focuses in on intimacy and minimalism with Vespertine. Her sonic sexual awakening has been linked to her then-new relationship with Matthew Barney, a force that would continue to inspire her work. The underlying vulnerability on Homogenic takes new form on Vespertine: looping electronics find their place where heavy beats once reigned; Björk’s commanding howl is hushed, she abandons grand string orchestration for micro-beats made of “domestic sounds” like cracking ice and shuffling cards. Björk has credited Brian Eno as a primary influence, an impact made clear by Vespertine’s ambient production. Sounds of chamber music are given an electronica-meets-bedroom pop flair, evoking an enchanting intimacy. “Pagan Poetry” features a gentle harp and a music box composition fluttering over a subtle, pulsing bass. Whispers echo and layer; her voice swirls, creating a cocoon-like atmosphere. Björk’s breathy expression bears a sexual and emotional desperation, “Morsecoding signals/ They pulsate and wake me up.” An outcry of passion leads into the song’s conclusion, repeating: “I love him, I love him, I love him.” Minimalist production and an attention to texture lend themselves to the rich and spacious, yet delicate soundscape.

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Acapella Activist

“Oceania” from Medúlla (2004)

Somehow, Björk’s barebones acapella album feels more alien and futuristic than the rest. Her traditionally production-based collaboration is adapted for this vocally led album, utilizing a range of vocal talents including a Japanese beatboxer, a choir, and a throat singer. She draws upon a history of employing her voice as a central instrument to orchestrate Medúlla’s sonically diverse composition, merging elements from hip-hop, folk, medieval, and chamber music. Björk wrote the album’s promotional single, “Oceania”, for the 2004 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, a seemingly strange association that actually makes a lot of sense once you consider the album’s international influences and political undertones. In the song, Björk entices us to see her as the ocean, singing about the evolution she birthed. She transcends physical embodiment as an omniscient ocean goddess, eschewing a personal narrative and shifting her focus to big ideas.

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Tribal Meets Timbaland

“Wanderlust” from Volta (2007)

Six albums later, Björk finds herself moving toward a master-curator role, enlisting a lengthy roster of collaborators — even for Björk — under her broader vision. She found producers and musicians from all over to help her make an easily-accessible piece of pop-infused world music. The most surprising of the bunch isn’t the fourteen-piece all-female Icelandic brass section or the Chinese pipa player; it’s hit producer Timbaland (yes, that one) who stands out. On one hand, who better than chart-topping Timbaland to co-produce a record pitched as a catchy pop project? Still, it’s a puzzling choice for someone who consciously avoids filtering into mainstream monotony. Björk has said her interest in Timbaland was based in his musicality rather than his popularity, and it’s true that the tracks he worked on, along with the rest of the album, aren’t run-of-the-mill pop. “Wanderlust” is one of the seven songs Timbaland contributed to on Volta and by far one of the most inviting songs on the album. Grand horns are squeezed and manipulated around Björk’s triumphant vocals, punctuated by a pulsating, buzzy bass. It has the components of a radio hit with the structure of an experimental IDM number. Björk dubbed “Wanderlust” the “heart of Volta,” as it expresses her insatiable yearning. This thirst for newness acted as the catalyst for this album and remains a consistent theme throughout her work. Björk’s iconic wail is tempered, but her foundational longing still shines through. Especially considering the album’s re-release two years later after Björk decided Volta was “just OK.”

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A Trip to Space

“Crystalline” from Biophilia (2011)

With every Björk album comes a media-led chorus claiming “most ambitious work to date,” but Biophilia might fit the bill as the first “album app” — an interactive platform that embedded space-themed songs within video games and music sequencers. Not only that, Björk followed the release with international musicology workshops and a documentary. Similar to the path she set out on in the externally focused Medúlla and Volta, Björk continues to extricate herself from the narrative with Biophilia. She focuses on nature in a broad sense, alternating between literal and philosophical meditations on astronomical topics like the moon cycle and cosmology. The lead single, “Crystalline”, relates the crystallization process to the experience of love. “With our hearts/ We chisel quartz/ To reach love,” she almost chants over electronic twinkles. That sparkling beat is made using a gameleste, which is, of course, one of the hybrid instruments Björk had made specially for Biophilia.

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The Breakup Album

“Stonemilker” from Vulnicura (2015)

Björk delves back into the self with even more fervor than before on Vulnicura, retracing a crumbling relationship and the nightmarish aftermath. A return to the gorgeous strings and electronic beats of Homogenic finds her in a familiar emotional state. Her creative energy is hard to contain in just one medium, one breakup, but Björk’s true genius is unleashed in that restlessness, trying to grapple with unfathomable heartbreak and senseless tragedy. She finds strength in vulnerability, exposing our tangled insides and examining the knot rather than untying it. The cover art displays Björk with a ripped-open chest, a strong motif throughout the album: on “Stonemilker”, she laments: “Who is open chested and who has coagulated?” Björk seeks mutual emotional ground, but the unwillingness of her partner to engage undermines her efforts. This discord is met with an affected string arrangement and an airy electronic beat; lush and immersive, sinking and floating, the dramatic composition expresses the visceral passion of a classic Björk ballad.

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The Tinder Album

“Blissing Me” from Utopia (2017)

The beautiful tragedy of her breakup led to a rich collaborative relationship with Venezuelan artist and producer Arca, with whom she co-produced Vulnicura and her forthcoming Utopia. In anticipation of the release, images of Björk as some sort of a mutated glamor-fish have flooded the media. She has called the upcoming record her “tinder album,” a meditation on dating post-heartbreak. Characteristic themes of relationships, technology, and nature are commonplace in Björk’s practice, but the machinations of dating are fairly new territory. The album’s second single, “Blissing Me,” continues the string-orientation from Vulnicura but with a warmer energy, sounding like a lullaby. She gushes over a new crush and ponders love in light of technology. “Is this excess texting a blessing?” she asks, raising the question on everyone’s mind. Björk is at her best when she can use her experience to tap into a universal psyche. Her work has shifted and molded with the cultural landscape and her personal life, the overlap of the two marking Björk’s sweet spot. At calmer points in her life, her worldview overshadowed the inner speculation. Now, with a “tinder album”, Björk creates the ultimate modern synthesis of personal and cultural reflection.

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