Björk just released a new record, called ‘Vulnicura’. It’s very good. But then, you expect that from the Icelander – she might not always be consistent from album to album, changing spots and shifting focus as she continually explores The New, but there’s always a terrific, singular quality to her work. She is entirely unlike any other artist on the planet – unprecedented, and impossible to imitate.
Amazingly, ‘Vulnicura’ might be the first Björk album you’ve ever heard. I know, it’s a terrifying thought, but there you go: we all have our initial “ins” and it just might be that the singer, songwriter, actress and campaigner’s ninth studio set is the one that switches you onto her really quite substantial catalogue. It’s certainly her most mainstream-accessible collection in years – although precisely what “mainstream” means when you’re scoring number ones whatever the experimentation on show, I’ve no idea.
Here’s our complete guide to Björk, then – for the slow-pokes, the new aficionados, and anyone who wants a little stroll down a memory lane marked by flashes of brilliance and dalliances with what some still hear as absolute madness.
- - -
Not really her first album – as that came out in 1977 (!) when Björk was just 12 years old, and there’s also the collaborative ‘Gling-Gló’ set of 1990 to consider – but it’s ‘Debut’ that marked her passage into both adulthood and music’s commercial centre. Its songs came together over several years, but by the time of ‘Debut’’s production, Björk had settled on some styles particular to the time: dance beats, trip-hop moods, traces of jazz, built up beside co-producer Nellee Hooper (Massive Attack, Madonna).
It worked. With MTV making a priority of music videos at the time, promos for singles ‘Human Behaviour’ and ‘Venus As A Boy’ (which eggily suggested “exciting sex”) were beamed into the living rooms of many impressionable teenagers who’d simply never heard anything like this before – likewise their parents. The videos bounced from the screen, the music equally bright and unfettered. Film syncs followed, with ‘Venus…’ getting a star turn in Léon and Björk’s collaboration with David Arnold for 1993’s The Young Americans, ‘Play Dead’, retrospectively added to later ‘Debut’ pressings.
Truthfully, this doesn’t work so well as an album compared to what followed – a magpie-eye mentality serves select songs splendidly, but there’s little in the way of track-to-track coherency. But perhaps that was always the point: that Björk could and would try anything, and ‘Debut’ was the perfect showcase for such hyperactive creativity.
‘Venus As A Boy’
- - -
In come the drums. If ‘Debut’ tiptoed its way into hearts, did a dizzy dance and then slumped into a corner, grinning from ear to ear, ‘Post’ bludgeoned down defences with its opener, ‘Army Of Me’ – also the album’s lead single – and continued to pound at ribcages.
It has several moments of sensitivity, songs that melt like ice in your drink and become part of something much bigger: ‘Isobel’, ‘Possibly Maybe’ and the divine orchestration of ‘You’ve Been Flirting Again’ (recorded with both Icelandic and English lyrics) all connect in the manner of ‘Venus…’. But it’s the industrial march of ‘Army Of Me’ and the biomechanical brassiness of ‘Enjoy’ that strike the keenest-felt blows. The former’s start alone is enough to pique the senses, to heighten anticipation for a collection that really was striding away from what we’d heard an album earlier. Clump, thud; clump, thud – and she won’t sympathise, anymore.
Pieced together after Björk had made the move from Iceland to London, ‘Post’ channels its maker’s unfamiliarity with her new surroundings, and her difficulties in getting by without family and old friends. It’s therefore a scattergun assembly, again, confused of absolute direction; but there’s something in the confidence and conviction of ‘Post’ that gives it that play-right-through edge that its predecessor lacked. This is angry Björk, reflective Björk, romantic Björk, absolutely-f*cking-terrifying Björk – and never, whoever she brought in as a collaborator, from Tricky to Howie B, is it anyone but her dominating the stage.
Oh, and it has ‘Hyper-Ballad’ on it, which is just the best song about expunging dark-cloud doubts to absolutely revel, carefree, in the company of a loved one, like, ever.
‘Hyper-Ballad’ (or ‘Hyperballad’, if you prefer)
- - -
Bringing LFO’s Mark Bell into the fold for the first time, ‘Homogenic’ might have marked a bolder step towards dancefloors – Bell had appeared on the ‘Post’ remix LP, ‘Telegram’, of 1996, and would go on to work on future Björk albums. But the reality of this third/fourth solo collection was rather different to that expectation: instead of pressing solely into ballistic beats, it silkily slinked into more intimate surrounds.
The first thing you hear is strings, then voice. It’s only after a good 70 seconds that the electronic component of opener ‘Jóga’ really assert itself, after the first chorus has been and gone. Don’t panic: that lump that’s growing in your throat is totally natural. ‘Post’ could be defensive in its aggression, and even its more emotional moments were guarded – ‘Homogenic’ dropped the drawbridge and invited the world into its heart. It’s a love album, through and through, even when ‘Pluto’ is screaming the message home.
I still can’t hear ‘Unravel’ without getting a little… wobbly. (For entirely you-had-to-be-there reasons, best left out of this piece.) For many, though, the centrepiece of the ‘Homogenic’ experience is its parting song, ‘All Is Full Of Love’. It’s a Howie B remix on the album itself, but whatever version you consider the ‘original’, it’s a song that exists in a vacuum, untouched by time, weightless and forever. It’s beat-less, entirely carried on ripples of ambience – and locks into a vocal loop that just repeats the title over and over, until acceptance takes hold. Yes, all is full of love. You’re right. How silly of us. If only we could see that more often.
The Chris Cunningham-directed video, from 1999, looks like it could have been made yesterday. It will still look amazing 50 years from now.
‘All Is Full Of Love’
- - -
A four-year break, a new millennium – and an album that focused exclusively on the self and its closest relationships. ‘Vespertine’ is entirely inward-facing, a document of Björk’s retreat from the cold outside and into the embrace of a partner willing to follow her on any and all sexual explorations. But if this is erotic – and it is – it’s never smutty, and the music, which employs beats beside typical strings and instruments like harp and clavichord, chimes throughout with “beautifulest, fragilest” immediacy.
A working title of ‘Domestica’ reveals just how homely Björk wanted to make this album feel – and it’s definitely music that works best when played in a private space, free of any environmental clangour. The detail of her lyrics is more revealing than ever before, the flowering relationship between the singer and artist Matthew Barney informing the album’s most closed-door imagery. ‘Cocoon’ is certainly explicit – the “train of pearls” she refers to doesn’t require much in the way of translation.
Introverted but ultimately hiding nothing from the listener, ‘Vespertine’ is poetic and balletic, a gracefully engrossing peek into the (most) private life of one of the world’s most recognisable musicians. This close-up bears nothing to mask the personality under the microscope, nothing to distract from the incredibly sensuous sculpting of a set that, to this day, is as remarkably revealing as it was on first impressions.
‘Cocoon’ (contains nudity)
- - -
After two albums bearing quiet passages of delicate instrumentation, Björk decided to almost do away with such backing entirely, basing much of Medúlla on chopped and looped vocals. This a cappella approach cooled some interest in the direction her work was taking, for sure – but equally certain is the fact that nobody else was making music like this.
Politics and pregnancy filter into the lyrical content – this being Björk’s first studio album recorded after September 11th and everything that event changed in global relations. Nothing is as immediate as what preceded this collection, which is to be expected – to go from music boxes to beat-boxing is some substantial step – but spend time with Medúlla and a very unusual beauty emerges.
The echo on her voice for ‘Show Me Forgiveness’ becomes an instrument in itself, while the collision of choir contributions and the vocal gymnastics of Shlomo on ‘Oceania’ lend it a fluttering, fantastical atmosphere ready to be absorbed by wide eyes. ‘Triumph Of A Heart’ manages to recreate the accelerated dancefloor dynamics of ‘Post’ with voices alone – completely bizarre but wholly compulsive.
‘Triumph Of A Heart’
- - -
Mark Bell, Danja and Timbaland make for a contrasting triad of co-producers for Björk’s seventh album, but if ‘Volta’ mirrored the styles-hopping DNA of ‘Debut’, it did so with a single conceptual focus: to let it all out, to have some fun, and to smash down expectations like only this artist can.
Pop, though? That was the hook – that after ‘Medúlla’, this would represent something more like ‘Post’, where singles charted highly and songs came ready for movie use. Like it’d all be so simple – ‘Declare Independence’ took aim at the Danish rule of Greenland and the Faroe Islands (it once ruled Iceland, too), and ‘The Dull Flame Of Desire’, with Antony,repurposed lines from Russian poetry to comprise a slow-dance duet driven by deep brass. (Fact bomb: this song played at my wedding while we were signing the register.)
Elsewhere, songs did hark back to past moods – ‘Wanderlust’ is, in the artist’s own words, “a sort of continuity of ‘Hyper-Ballad’”. There’s an appealing playfulness to ‘Earth Intruders’, which in its kitchen-drawers percussion feels like a precursor to the breakthrough of tUnE-yArDs – and this optimism and hopefulness really drives ‘Volta’ onwards. While it’s political, it’s also upbeat, facing the problems of the world with a smile in its solutions. And ‘Innocence’ is a straight banger that anyone can drop into a hip-hop set – I’ve seen it work, honest. (Okay, it cleared the dancefloor, but you’ve got to try these things, right?)
- - -
Things went rather badly for Iceland after ‘Volta’ (not as a direct result of its release, you understand). The country’s financial crisis rubbed off on its favourite musical daughter, who conceived ‘Biophilia’ as a response to monetary matters and how nature, technology and music intersect. She really went to town in a tech capacity, releasing this as an ‘app album’ – each song possessing its own imagery and interactivity, ‘Moon’ taking the form of a modest remix programme, and ‘Virus’ adopting a more video game-y approach, the ‘player’ protecting a cell from attacking bacteria.
Removing ‘Volta’ from app context, it’s a mighty fine record to simply enjoy through speakers – although probably not as highly regarded amongst fans as a number of prior long-players. It’s a challenging affair: ‘Thunderbolt’ is almost as instrumentally minimalist as something from ‘Medúlla’, ‘Mutual Core’ takes a trip to the crunchiest edge of what Americans call “EDM”, and ‘Dark Matter’ plunges deep into the void to echo back alien reverberations.
Here is where the mystical meets the machines, and even if it doesn’t all work, ‘Biophilia’ impresses with its commitment to advancement – again, it manages to sound like both part of a wider catalogue and an incredibly standalone statement.
- - -
- - -
And the rest…
Björk’s released two soundtrack LPs, a ‘greatest hits’ in 2002, remix sets to accompany several albums – ‘The Best Mixes…’ for ‘Debut’, ‘Telegram’ for ‘Post’, ‘Bastards’ for ‘Biophilia’ – and a handful of live records and DVDs. Oh, and an EP with Dirty Projectors. And some expensive box sets. If you had to get just one… I am a big fan of ‘Selmasongs’, the soundtrack for Lars von Trier’s 2000 musical drama Dancer In The Dark. It fuses everyday sounds with classical strings and brass to form a whole that’s just as arresting shorn from its parent movie. It earned Grammy and Academy Award nominations, and the (on-record, not in the film) duet with Thom Yorke, ‘I’ve Seen It All’, is a pure heartbreaker.
‘I’ve Seen It All’ (movie version with Peter Stormare)
- - -