Ten years ago, music seemed to be on the verge of seismic changes. Grunge had supposedly destroyed hair metal and AOR. Dance music, it was fashionable to remark, would soon dominate the planet. New artists were dispelling the caricature of the female star as either wistful singer-songwriter or Bambi-eyed bimbo : provocative Tori Amos, scary PJ Harvey. Then there was Björk Guðmundsdóttir, a fearless sonic adventuress from sodden Iceland, drawing on any source from world music to big-band jazz to techno. It seemed everything would be different from now on.
Or perhaps not. In 2002, hair metal is hip again, Nickelback and the Calling have reanimated AOR’s corpse and the idea that dance music will rule the planet seems as quaint as a ‘50s sci-fi movie that predicts everyone will soon own a flying saucer. As for female stars, well, they do make ‘em like they used to : Take your pick from Dido, Jewel or Britney. Amos’s star has dimmed. PJ Harvey remains an acquired taste. Despite respectable sales and an Oscar nomination, Björk has never crossed over from cult heroine to bona fide superstar.
This collection, selected by Björk’s fans via her Web site, suggests some reasons for that fate. Though it’s centered around her singles, her biggest hit, the irritating show-tune parody “It’s Oh So Quiet,” is a surprise omission. Maybe even her most devoted partisans sigh when she turns up the knob marked “kooky.” In its place comes the new track, “It’s in Our Hands,” a sweet melody marooned above chattering, scraping electronics—lovely, but less immediate than the fan choices.
Björk’s skill as a songwriter, often overlooked because of her remarkable, fluttery voice and the quirkiness of her instrumental backdrops, is abundantly evident. “Venus as a Boy,” from her first solo album, 1993’s Debut, is slinkily sensual ; “Play Dead” boasts a chorus that’s both original and implausibly epic ; and the race from tinkling ambient intro to pounding techno finale in “Hyperballad” still sparkles and thrills.
In the later material, her grasp of melody remains strong, but she seems to be fleeing to the margins. “Hunter” (from 1997) and “Pagan Poetry” (2001) are less straightforward, their hooks buried amid the weird arrangements. Similarly, her live appearances have become more recherché. A comedian who wanted to lampoon avant-garde obscurity might imagine a singer performing with a gay electronica duo and an Inuit choir—precisely how Björk chose to promote last year’s Vespertine.
It may be worth noting that Björk looked miserable in the mid-‘90s, when she was on the cusp of stardom. She attacked a reporter in a Thailand airport, a crazed fan (who later videotaped his suicide) attempted to kill her with a mail bomb and another stalker broke into her mother’s home. “I thought I could organize freedom,” she dolefully sings on “Hunter,” recorded a year after the airport attack and murder attempt. “How Scandinavian of me.”
Whether deliberate rejection of mainstream celebrity or not, the more recent tracks make listeners work harder. That doesn’t make them lesser songs. “Jóga” is a show-stopping, string-laden ballad. Vespertine’s “Pagan Poetry” and “Hidden Place” quiver with the sort of urgent sexuality Marvin Gaye would understand.
Perhaps Björk’s dwindling sales are part of a deliberate self-preservation plan. Or maybe they prove that music has dumbed down recently — Radiohead aside, the last 10 years have seen a shift from complexity and depth to brash immediacy.
Either way, these 15 tracks hold more interesting notions and twists than some artists explore in their entire careers. Ten years separate “Human Behavior” and “It’s in Our Hands,” with no discernible dip in invention. Björk’s ideas keep coming thick and fast.