My earliest memories of Björk were almost wholly parodical in nature. Bursting out of The Sugarcubes in the early 90’s, she was labelled as the quirky, shrieky Icelandic pixie of the music world; something UK listeners had no experience of. So big an impression did Björk make, that she was sent up by the beloved institution that is French and Saunders .
Hilariously, it’s not enough to be quirky to be viewed with amusement in today’s charts. Indeed, it’s almost the order of the day now: Paloma Faith, Pixie Lott, La Roux, Lady Gaga, even The X Factor’s Katie Waissel are all eager for a slice of the eccentric pie. It seems apposite, then, to take a look at one of the original pop pixies.
First impressions of Debut are that while it still sounds fresh today, it is hands-down the ultimate nostalgia-laden 90’s party album, veering between energetic dance and 3am chillout with effortless flair. There’s a lot of colour to the tracks despite their wholly electronic nature, due in no small part to Björk’s distinctive vocals, now yelling and growling, now breathy and smooth. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea- I remember a heated school debate consisting of the ‘but she’s just screaming’ brigade versus the ‘it’s alternative, dammit!’ crowd- but regardless of your opinion on the vocal style, it’s undeniable that these songs reach out, grab you by the throat and have you on the dancefloor with your glowsticks waving.
The album opens with the thumping kettledrums and clanking steel drum-like chimes of Human Behaviour. Both instruments and vocals build up nicely over the course of the track, as Björk muses on, well, human behaviour:
If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready to get confused
There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour
The beat is pounding and hard, but the vocals are suitably ethereal with just the right amount of trademark grunts and shrieks. This track is the musical equivalent of a small delicate songbird riding on top of a lumbering elephant, and somehow the combination just works.
Crying starts off sounding very much like a cookie-cutter 90’s dance track, especially that distinctive electric piano. (Why yes, a lot of this album can turn into a game of ‘spot the Yamaha keyboard voice’, but gosh is it fun.) For a song about vulnerability and loneliness it’s remarkably upbeat, but there’s a dark slice of synths blistering through to cause the listener enough unsettled feelings. And yet, there’s gorgeously lush backing vocals and synth vibraphone overlaid on this, so you can’t be too repelled.
Arguably one of the best tracks follows this. Venus As A Boy slinks seductively into your ears, all Eastern strings and chimes, with some rather cheeky lyrics to boot:
His wicked sense of humour
Suggests exciting sex
His fingers focus on her
Touches, he’s Venus as a boy.
This is definitely the chillout antidote to the first few songs; it certainly evokes a kind of cool stillness of sitting on the beach blissed out after a long night of dancing. The album doesn’t stay still for long, though, leaping back on its feet with a giant dose of four-on-the-floor for There’s More To Life Than This. Allegedly inspired by a party so boring she left, it’s a playful mischievous nighttime adventure:
It’s still early morning
We could go down to the harbour
And jump between the boats
And see the sun come up
It’s a youthful yearning for more fun and kicks than life offers; it bursts out of the ennui of samey revelry, quite literally. Björk can be heard leaving the club halfway through and suggesting ‘I could nick a boat, And sneak off to this island, I could bring my little ghettoblaster’, over the jazzy background vocal sample. This is a track that deserves more airplay, really.
Like Someone In Love floats in on a cloud, sweet but not too cloying with its tinkling harps and breathless vocals. It has an oddly vintage air to it; something that would be repeated with It’s Oh So Quiet. After that respite, it’s back to the four-on-the-floor house with Big Time Sensuality, much parodied by Dawn French in the aforementioned video. Lots of that trademark primal screaming incoherence punctuate the throbbing beat and punchy organs; the ideal accompaniment for a one-off dancefloor romance:
We just met
And I know I’m a bit too intimate
But something huge is coming up
And we’re both included.
I’m sure I could insert some innuendo here (oo-err, &c &c), but in all honesty the lyrics, like the fictional encounter, are of little significance. It’s techno-fluff, pure and simple, and no less of a classic song for that.
I hit my first problematic piece with One Day, mostly in not being able to fathom it even after repeated listenings. It creeps up with nonsense baby noises and noodly oscillations oddly reminiscent of the lab sections of Look Around You, then pulses on with discordant synths backing some very Sibylline words. (‘An aeroplane Will curve gracefully Around the volcano With the eruption that never lets you down.’ That simple, is it?) There’s hints of a downtempo 808 State or early Orbital here, but buried very deeply.
It’s almost as if we’ve reached the truly experimental section of Debut. Where One Day perplexes, Aeroplane unsettles with its off-kilter quasi-improvised brass intro, jungle sound effects, and flitting from bongos to an unexpected jazz drum and sax interlude in the middle, fading to a Latin-sounding melody. As a means of evoking the lyrical yearning for a missing lover, it’s fascinating. It’s almost an easier listen than One Day, but only just. Come To Me continues the slower pace, with a string-tinged piece of trip-hop that’s still unmistakeably Björk. Swirling vocal oohs dance over Eastern-style strings as in Venus As A Boy, this time livened up with djembe to hypnotic effect.
But this is far from the end of the danceability factor, as Violently Happy brings some good old straightforward house back in. It’s only a temporary lightness though, as Anchor Song brings Debut to a bittersweet, gently melancholy end, in a sparse but brassy ode to the sea. As forcefully and stomping as the album begins, so it ends introspective and thoughtful. Unless you happen to have the edition with the bonus track, at which point you are treated to Tim Simenon’s remix of Play Dead from the Young Americans soundtrack, which is a marvellous piece worthy of being a Bond theme with its soaring strings and high drama.
All things considered, and while I do admire the newer generation of eccentric pop ladies, I think that Björk’s Debut is one of the most diverse and original records of the ‘90s. While it can be at times difficult listening, it’s worth persevering simply for the refreshing burst of what someone of my age can now, sadly, refer to as ‘90s nostalgia. (Excuse me while I weep gently into my Horlicks on that thought. Pesky kids.)