guardian.co.uk

Is Björk the last great pop innovator ?

No one else can match the Icelandic musician’s three decades of artistic restlessness and invention.

Photograph : Stephen Sweet/Rex Features

Earlier this year I interviewed Amanda Brown of cult band LA Vampires and was surprised when she announced that "every day I wake up and ask myself : ’How I can be more like Björk ?’ How can I be the most ecstatic, eclectic artist ?" Surprised because Björk had dipped out of view in recent years and I confess that I’d half-forgotten how interesting she was as an artist – and just how long she’d stayed interesting.

Björk’s career of innovation kicked off in early 80s Iceland with the "primal punk" of KUKL. Then came the Sugarcubes, the house band of Reykjavík’s incestuous bohemian scene of absinthe-swigging surrealists and poets. Oscillating wildly between sublime and quirky, the Sugarcubes became the toast of the UK music press with unclassifiable art-pop tunes such as Birthday,which featured Björk’s inimitable hypergasmic vocals.

In 1993, she went solo with Debut, a joyously juicy adventure in contemporary dance styles. Enchanting and inventive videos such as Human Behaviour (directed by Michel Gondry) made her an MTV star in America. Then 1995’s Post tapped into the vortex of multicultural energy that was mid-90s London, where she had relocated and where strange hybrids such as jungle and trip-hop were bubbling. Homogenic, which followed in 1997, was even more experimental, reconnecting Björk with her native land’s elemental rawness. Then 2001’s gorgeous and glassy-sounding Vespertine withdrew into a cocoon of domestic bliss, paralleling her new life in New York with artist Matthew Barney.

The past decade has seen Björk veer from vocals-only extremism (Medúlla) to R&B flirtations (Volta), interspersed with soundtrack albums such as Selmasongs and Drawing Restraint 9. Now with the almost ludicrously ambitious Biophilia, Björk is on the cutting edge of finding ways that new media technology can enhance and expand the aesthetic experience of music, rather than deplete and cheapen it.

"Every one of Björk’s records is different," enthused Brown. "And that’s partly because she’s always working with new people." Her taste in collaborators is indeed impeccable – Tricky, Matmos, Robert Wyatt, Timbaland, 808 State’s Graham Massey, LFO’s Mark Bell, Zeena Parkins, Rahzel – but it’s always her vision and personality that sets the tone, and it’s her talent that brings out the best in her audio-accomplices.

When it comes down to it, Björk simply has no rivals for sustained pop innovation over the long haul. Who else can match her nearly 30 years of being so artistically restless, so fruitfully ? David Bowie pretty much invented the model of the pop shapeshifter, but after a dozen years of unrelenting brilliance, his career dwindled into a twice-as-long coda of bold misfires and catastrophic lapses. Kate Bush, the female Bowie, has been a dormant volcano for most of the last 20 years, but made a tentative return this year with Director’s Cut, which revisits songs from her least fondly regarded stretch of output. As for Björk’s partners and peers from the 1990s, charismatic sound-wizards such as Tricky, Goldie, and the Aphex Twin have either faded in potency or been sidelined into the dread zone marked "famous for being famous". After their Kid A/Amnesiac spurt of weirdness, Radiohead went back to doing what they do best. U2, similarly, became their own tribute band. Competition gets thinner still when it comes to the 00s : Animal Collective and Joanna Newsom do one thing very well, Gaga and MIA are aggregators not innovators. Björk is peerless.

Cultural impact does not always correlate with sales figures. Nobody much listens to Blood, Sweat and Tears or the Moody Blues these days, but music fans and young bands are still inspired by Love and the Velvet Underground, both failures in the marketplace of their day. The same applies to Björk : she is so much bigger a figure than the crude measure of units shifted would indicate. Alongside Beck and Trent Reznor, she is one of the figures who defined MTV in the 90s, but amazingly she never had a real American hit single. Here in the UK, her commercial profile is a shadow of what it was. But Björk remains an icon : tiny but titanic, thanks to the size of her voice and the scope of her imagination.

Simon Reynolds

publié dans guardian.co.uk - 04.07.2011

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