Jazzy Love Songs Tinged With an Oceanic Feeling

The New York Times , 22 août 1993

Björk exploded into public consciousness with her starburst vocals on “Birthday,” the 1987 debut single by the Sugarcubes. Björk’s ethereal voice and elf-girl image had critics and fans bewitched. Rave reviews predicted imminent world conquest for the Icelandic band. But it didn’t happen, and the Sugarcubes never quite scaled the heights of their debut again. Over three albums, the group veered from moderately captivating dream pop to quirky, negligible new wave and gradually whittled down its cult following rather than expanding it.

Now Björk (who doesn’t use her last name, Guðmundsdóttir) has gone solo, as some devotees always felt she should. In recent interviews, the 27-year-old singer has professed that she never much cared for the alternative-rock qualities of the Sugarcubes’ music. With “Debut” (Elektra, 9 61468-2 ; CD and cassette), she set out to combine her love of jazz with her ardor for rave music. To this end, she hooked up with Nellee Hooper of Soul II Soul, who produced most of the album and co-wrote five of the 11 songs. Mr. Hooper’s rhythmic expertise provides the kind of groovy settings Björk’s voice has always deserved. The collaboration has proved effective ; the album is rapidly climbing Billboard’s pop chart.

At its unleashed peak—as first heard on “Birthday”—Björk’s singing communicates an ineffable alloy of mixed emotions, a mad jumble of astonishment, elation, rapture, dread, awe. “Debut” is drenched with just this goose-pimple-inducing stuff. The title of “Violently Happy” captures the Björk effect perfectly : a gush and rush of euphoria, a tidal wave of oceanic feeling. Over the song’s brisk house beats, Björk stammers as she struggles to express feelings of excitement so intense she seems on the brink of leaping out of her skin : “I’m driving my car too fast with ecstatic music on/ I’m daring people to jump off roofs with me.” In the end, she and Mr. Hooper resort to studio wizardry to gesture at inexpressible feelings, sampling one syllable and turning it into a stuttering vocal tic.

This breathless, insatiable lust for life pervades the album. In “There’s More to Life Than This,” Björk gasps like she’s choking on her own rising bliss, while the sultry “Big Time Sensuality” has her vaulting from chesty growls to hyperventilating harmonies so piercing she sounds as if she’s inhaled helium. But Björk is actually most effective when her vocal histrionics are relatively restrained. The album’s standout track, “One Day,” has a wonderful sense of tremulous, mounting anticipation that’s just barely contained. Singing lines like “One day, you will blossom,” Björk glides through a shimmering, brimming soundscape of undulating beats and twinkling keyboards.

“Debut” often recalls the early 70’s jazz-fusion of bands like Weather Report. But where these fusionists combined jazz harmony with funk and acid rock, Björk marries her scat-vocalese and off-kilter melodies with the futuristic textures and programmed percussion of today’s techno and acid house. In this vein, “Aeroplane” is even more of a lush polyrhythmic jungle than “One Day.” Its iridescent keyboards hark back to fusion players like Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul. “Venus as a Boy” heads East for its exoticism ; Talvin Singh’s and Sureh Sathe’s strings have the lavish, melodramatic quality of the orchestral soundtracks to Indian movie musicals.

For the most part, “Debut” is a collection of love songs. Some are inspired by flesh-and-blood passion (Björk croons the jazz standard “Like Someone in Love,” her voice cradled in harp and swoony strings). Others are about being in love with life or with her own bizarre fantasy world. There’s one exception to the joyous vibe, the foreboding “Human Behavior” (the first single off the album). Over an ominous rhythm track that sounds like thunderous tympani, Björk draws a disconcerting parallel between the beastliness of humanity and the bestiality of nature.

In the brilliant video, Björk plays the role of a little girl who lives in a sort of Disney noir forest. As in the best fairy tales, underneath the picaresque surface lurks the sinister and macabre. A cute teddy bear becomes a cruel, marauding beast (Björk ends up in his tummy), while the parallels between human and animal drives are underlined by juxtaposing a moth that flies blindly into a light bulb with Björk as a cosmonaut hurtling to the moon. The video plays on Björk’s childlike image and the fact that she comes from Iceland, a country where a large percentage of the population believe that fairies really exist. Appropriately, “Debut” is an enchanting album.

par Simon Reynolds publié dans The New York Times