An Icepick through Concrete
Nordic Sounds 1996 - 01; pp 3 - 6
The 30-year old Icelandic singer and songwriter Björk is one of those rare creatures in popular culture who defy categorization and cultural stereotypes - a true creator of world music that accepts no boundaries. "A Freak who was born-singing." Björk on herself
One of the most amazing and unusual performers to attain star status in the pop and dance firmament in these retrospective, postmodern nineties is undoubtedly the 30-year-old Icelandic singer and songwriter Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Her two solo albums, Debut from 1993 and Post from 1995, feature highly original music which has amazingly been able to reach a large audience despite its experimentation and eclecticism. She seems far from the mainstream, yet that very mainstream can t seem to get enough of this slightly Mongolian-looking, petite, tough, trendsetting and absolutely original artist, who describes herself as "a freak who was born singing''.
Perhaps the most astounding feature of Björk's multidimensional artistic character is her voice, which sounds like nothing you ever heard before; after years and years where either highly trained but rather boring singers in the black tradition, or self-taught, fragile and often very charming, though technically rather poor voices, have dominated the pop, rock and dance scene, the experience of Björk's wide expressive compass is enough to make your hair stand on end; in total control of her artistic resources, she forces her voice to surprising extremes, covering a range of human emotions rarely heard in the pop context. One minute she purrs and soothes, the next she explodes and howls. She can sound sweet, even cute, but on the whole she is definitely more tough than tender, like the place where she was born and grew up, and where her heart - or so she says - still remains.
Iceland is an island that zooms between extremes - from boiling lava to freezing snow, from the Northern Lights at night to pitch-black days. Icelandic culture, too, is about "maximum emotion" and being "violently happy", to quote some of her often very original lyrics. Björk Guðmundsdóttir may have come as a bit of a shock to the world at large when she burst on the airwaves with her first big hit and its stunning video by director Michel Gondry. This was Human Behaviour, released in the summer of' '93. But in her native Iceland she had been a well known phenomenon for years.
I Love To Love
Born in 1965, she grew up in a hippie-commune-like atmosphere, surrounded by encouraging and very open-minded adults. She has three sisters and three brothers, and they share three mothers and three fathers, so by the age of five she was self-reliant - she had to be. While she was at a music school noted for its liberal attitudes, a documentary was made about the school, and the then 11-year-old Björk endeared herself to her countrymen by singing a childlike but slightly twisted version of the then popular disco anthem I Love To Love, which led directly to a recording contract. So in 1977 she released her first album -simply entitled Björk - and it was something of a freak hit in Iceland. The album - with a sleeve featuring the 11-year-old dressed as an Oriental mandarin in a boudoir-like setting -promptly went platinum, though these days it is very rare and (if you can get hold of a copy) extremely expensive. Those who've heard it claim it is musically more palatable than your average teen-sensation fare and is a competent, accessible pop artefact of its era.
"If an Icelander loses a leg, they say, Well, what the hell, it only got in the way of the other leg." Björk, August 1995
It's her voice. It's like an icepick through concrete." (The Edge from U2)
This left her in the bizarre situation that, by the time she was 13, she was earning more than her parents. But then, "punk happened and I went bonkers", as she says. It not only changed Björk; it changed the whole music scene in Iceland. Until then it had been very hard to get records by anyone but mainstream artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, and even harder to find a place where you could go and listen to live music. But by the end of the seventies small clubs and music stores specializing in imports and hard-to-find records were mushrooming, and a new generation of Icelanders started experimenting radically with the rock format.
At 16 she joined her first band, Tappi Tíkarass, which roughly translated means "Cork The Bitch's Arse", and it evolved into the very influential Kukl (meaning "Sorcery") in which she joined forces with the singer and trumpeter Einar Örn Benediktsson. When Kukl split, Einar established The Sugarcubes - originally called Sykurmolarnir - without a doubt the most popular and trendsetting indie outfit ever to emanate from the Far North.
International language of rock
From 1986 to 1992 The Sugarcubes were the darlings of the critics worldwide, and although they reached their artistic pinnacle very early in their career with the still-stunning breakthrough single Birthday and its accompanying album Life's Too Good in 1988, the group's importance can hardly be overestimated. They were exponents of a dynamic youth scene in a place no one had ever taken seriously before in the musical context, and although they spoke the international language of rock, they infused it with a unique Icelandic sensibility. In this writer's book that qualifies them for the moniker 'world music'.
"The diminutive Icelandic woman, who seems to have a straight connection to some of the primal powers that according to legend stalk her native island".
Nothing much was really expected from Björk and her first international solo excursion, Debut (though she had made Gling-Glo, an album of jazz standards with the Guðmundar Ingolfssonar Trio in 1990); her label. One Little Indian, budgeted for modest sales of 25,000. When the record sold three million worldwide, they were overwhelmed. The album itself was a strange but successful amalgam of a decade of obsessions ranging from Debussy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk to the World Saxophone Quartet and house music, and it found its way into the record collections of people who would have ran a mile, fingers jammed in ears, from the second Sugarcubes album and Einar's unfettered vocal stylings.
Debut is still a magical album, with eleven splendid compositions, varied, constantly innovative backing tracks and magnificent performances from the diminutive Icelandic woman who seems to have a direct line to some of the primal forces that stalk her native island according to legend. A finer match of modern technology and pure primal force would be hard to come by -raw, yet sophisticated and club-cool.
Post is the follow-up to Debut, or as Björk sees it, "its twin". It is also much stranger and decidedly superior - odder, rawer and darker, although in the same general sound ballpark.
Less immediately accessible, the record builds up slowly, but relentlessly entraps the listener with music ranging from the smash-and-grab jazz of It's So Quiet to the dark lullaby Isobel, which a critic has called "Broadway on breakbeats"; from the devastating melodrama, thick with strings, of You've Been Flirting Again to the drowsy cri de coeur of the ambient closing number Headphones. Her constant search for new sounds generated a number of interesting collaborations with people like Graham Massey of 808 State, the producer Howie B and the trip-hop pioneer Tricky, who all matched Björk's magical prowess with their best efforts.
So on a stale, often very repetitive and unimaginative pop scene, there is no doubt that Björk has blazed new trails pointing in directions where no one thought of looking before. This 30-year Icelandic techno-elf has certainly shaken things up - from a place where preconceived notions of music just don't apply.
But most of all, there is that otherwordly, bizarre, yet endearing and fascinating voice; as guitarist The Edge of U2 put it: "It's her voice. It's like an icepick through concrete."
Life's too good (One Little Indian TPLP5-1988)
Here Today Tomorrow Next Week (One Little Indian TP15 CDC-1989)
Stick Around For Joy (One Little Indian TP30 CD-1992)
It's - It (One Little Indian TP40 CDC-1992)
Björk (Fälkinn FA-006 - LP - 1977)
Gling-Gló (Smekkleysa SM 27 -CD-1990)
Debut (One Little Indian TPLP31-CD-1993)
Post (Mother Earth Records S27733-2-1994)