The thirty-seven-year-old singer and songwriter Björk titled her fourth solo CD, released in 2001, “Vespertine”—a word used to describe things that flower or flourish in the evening—and, listening to the album, you can almost smell the associations : the heady but ethereal perfume of night blossoms ; the dripping wax of candles lit for vespers ; the drugs burning as the telephone rings, the answering machine set to mute. Björk conjures up colder references, too : in particular, the image of herself trekking across “the glacier head” of her native Iceland, “looking . . . for moments of shine,” as she sings in “Aurora,” one of the album’s strongest tracks. Björk makes us feel the clammy toes in damp fur boots, see the fur-hatted girl on a glistening sphere of snow, using her voice to make the ice crack.
It is that voice—her lungs are like an accordion filled with broken glass—that we can appreciate in all its emotional eclecticism on the newly released six-CD set “Family Tree.” The set includes a disk of Björk’s “Greatest Hits,” as she sees them—a selection that incorporates several of her arresting B-sides. (Another “Greatest Hits” was released a few months ago, chosen by fans online. Predictably, they went mostly for songs that were dance hits.) Two other CDs, “Strings” and “Beats,” examine the ways in which the classical music and avant-garde electronica Björk studied early in her career inform her work and make her what she is—a glamorous and highly trained computer geek. (The boxed set also makes clear her interest in world music as a metaphor for community. Her first touring band featured international musicians, ranging from an Iranian keyboard player and an Indian tabla player to a Barbadian bassist—not the best strategy if you want to cross over, but there you have it.) As an anthology of Björk’s sound, and as a chronicle of where she’s been as a solo artist for the ten years since she left her enormously successful band, the Sugarcubes, “Family Tree” is useful, if somewhat skeletal ; it lacks the slowly evolving density of her four solo albums, on which her story—as a star with a hit album at age eleven and international fame at twentyeight, and as an immigrant in search of a home, love, and a place in music—unfolds with a kind of itchy grace.
Recorded in London, Björk’s first solo album, “Debut” (1993), was produced by Nellee Hooper, who studied in the school of beautiful and urbane sound popularized by the band Massive Attack on its 1991 album “Blue Lines.” Soulful and just this side of depressed, Massive Attack combined rap and house music with certain technological innovations that began with spinning : letting the record drag, playing the scratches as a sonic element, and so on. Björk married her white soul—the pathos of the provincial—to Massive Attack’s blacker, more sophisticated riffs : a form of musical miscegenation. What made “Debut” all the more refreshing was her uncommercial approach. There was no pre-sell. There were no hair extensions. And Björk never, as so many singer-songwriters do, wrote songs about regret. She was an ascetic interested in sexual abandon, and she whooped and swooped her way through her first three albums, until she reached the culmination of the quieter “Vespertine.” As a maturing artist, it seemed, she had less to prove ; she had told her story, and now it was time to understand it.
Singing is mostly breathing, and the best singers can make that breath resonate as pure feeling. There were great physical singers before Björk—Janis Joplin, for instance, and Patti LaBelle—singers who turn us on with the exaltation they experience as they meld control with release. We’ve had our share of truly cerebral singers, too—warbling wordsmiths like Chrissie Hynde, who are as interested in what they have to say as in how they say it. But what makes even Björk’s failures interesting is the way she uses the rhythms of speech to make us actually hear her ideas forming. Her literally breathtaking song “Headphones,” for instance, co-produced with the studio artist Tricky and released on “Post” (1995), her second solo album, is ostensibly a letter thanking a friend for a tape, but the song’s most moving passages involve not Björk’s lyrics but her inhalations and exhalations, her tentative vowels, her sharp intakes of air, her sustained notes, all mixed with the sparest instrumentation—a snap drum, random phrases from an electric guitar, the sound of waves crashing against the shore. “Sounds go through the muscles,” she sings. “These abstract wordless move-ments move-move-move-move-move.” Björk’s vocal rhythms resonate because she is never afraid to break through the surface of her own contralto. She is in a constant headlong rush toward her limits. We worry not about whether she can reach the realm of pure sound but about whether she’ll be able to come back down from that high sonic plane. Judy Garland crossed with Stockhausen, she wants to write songs that we can all appreciate, but she layers the emotion with instrumental experimentation.
There is a lot of air in Björk’s lyrics. Like Billie Holiday on her masterly late-career album “Lady in Satin,” she knows that, for certain singers, the less said the better. She takes the abstraction of Holiday’s work— the improvisatory quality of jazz—and applies it to the pop structure. She is more interested in tonality than in language, and her singing is never just “happy” or “sad” ; it is a patchwork of feeling stitched together with light rhymes and orchestrations that owe a great deal to the Brian Eno school of bubbling sound. It is also full of holes, gaps left open to the listener’s imagination. On “Vespertine,” for instance, Björk collaborated with Matmos, a San Francisco-based duo who incorporated various ambient sounds into her songs : cards being dealt, water boiling, and so on. When she doesn’t leave those spaces between words—when her vocabulary becomes too thick and clotted—her songs tip over into whimsy, a fantasyland replete with butterflies and rainbows and dancing elves. This was the case with some of the tracks on “Selmasongs” (2000), her soundtrack for the Lars von Trier film “Dancer in the Dark.” (Von Trier cowrote the lyrics for “Selmasongs,” and you can also feel the heavy influence of Dogma.)
But what makes Björk stand out most is the ostentatious theatricality of her isolation ; she’s the girl who longs for the unpopular guy, a lonesome cowboy whose internal life mirrors her own. She’s drawn to the infernal side of love. In the free verse of her song “Unravel,” on “Strings”—”While you are away / My heart comes undone / Slowly unravels / In a ball of yarn / The devil collects it / With a grin”—one hears echoes of Yum-Yum’s solo in “The Mikado” (“I mean to rule the earth / As he the sky / We really know our worth / The sun and I”). Björk, like Gilbert and Sullivan, is interested in the emotive voice. Perhaps to mark the next decade of her evolution, she should write an operetta, too—one based, say, on “Wuthering Heights,” the story of a marginal girl and the outsider she loves.