Who Does Björk Think She Is ?

The Daily Telegraph (UK), 16 août 2001

According to my sources, when the Royal Opera House received a call from a company wishing to hire the venue for an international singing star, there was considerable bemusement behind the scenes. Imagine the effrontery of thinking that the great venue could be rented out like a church hall to any jumped-up warbler who wanted to put on a show !

Even if no one at the ROH actually asked the question “Who is Björk ?”, it is a fair one. The multi-million-selling Icelandic diva is one of the least categorisable artists working in music today. In this increasingly marketing-led musical climate, Björk represents not so much a square peg (awkward to accommodate in the pre-punched round holes of the record business) as a multi-faceted object.

This perhaps goes some way to explaining why her record label, One Little Indian, is embarking on a promotional campaign for her new album, Vespertine, aimed at extending her appeal to classical music fans. Indeed, from some perspectives, this almost makes sense.

The album (released on August 27) features copious strings and choral interludes. Björk has referred to the intricate arrangements as being a form of “modern chamber music”.

Having given up on the ROH (or vice versa), Björk will now be appearing at the Coliseum, home of English National Opera, on September 23, backed by a harpist and a 15-piece Eskimo choir. What classical music fans might be expected to make of the contribution of the other principal musicians in her small band, namely ultra-hip electronic San Franciscan duo Matmos, is anyone’s guess. But by the time Björk starts whispering the intensely sexual lyrics of Cocoon (her forthcoming single), while gasping in pseudo- orgasmic bliss over washes of subsonic synthesizer and clicking micro-beats, it’s safe to assume that nobody is going to think they are at the Proms.

Like most of Björk’s work, Vespertine is intensely modern in blending apparently incompatible sources. “I wanted to create a new audio world for this album,” she has commented. She incorporates “the noises that everybody is using every day—the remote control, the mobile, the internet and the fax machine”.

Fluttery, time-switching cut-and-paste rhythms, bubbling undercurrents of digital chatter and ghostly snatches of sampled sounds are combined in a strangely subdued sonic collage, through which Björk’s trembling, breathy vocals weave and twist.

One can never really know where a Björk song is going, perhaps because she never sounds entirely sure herself. There is something almost childlike about her approach to song construction. She rarely bothers with such everyday lyrical concerns as rhyme or metre, her vocal melodies reflecting the sense of playfulness and wide-eyed wonder at the heart of her compositions. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss her as a naif or a primitive.

At 36, Björk is a music-business veteran who has proved herself adept in a wide variety of genres. She studied classical flute and piano and recorded her first album at the age of 11, the combination of pubescent pop and powerful vocals making her a child star in Iceland.

Since then, solo and with various bands (notably raw-edged, experimental Eighties rock outfit the Sugarcubes) she has recorded albums spanning the extremes of punk, dance and electronica, with a brief foray into jazz (a 1990 album, Gling-Gló, was recorded with a Reykjavík be-bop group to pay off mounting debts). Her last release was Selmasongs, the wide-ranging soundtrack to Danish director Lars von Trier’s Cannes-award-winning film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk also starred.

The claustrophobic quietness of Björk’s new album seems, in part, to be her reaction to the sonic extremes of previous albums. Also, there is the little matter (as graphically enacted on Cocoon) of her intense love affair with highly touted American artist Matthew Barney. An embarrassed Q journalist recently admitted that the open affection evinced on Vespertine made him rather uncomfortable. “I wouldn’t look at it as uncomfortable,” Björk retorted in her off-beat English. “I would say that’s generous.”

It was a revealing exchange. Björk is not only one of the most inventive artists working in music today but also, it seems to me, among the most feminine. Like Kate Bush before her, she does not so much defy musical convention as subvert it to the needs of her imagination and emotions, creating music that operates as a kind of psychology of her interior world.

In a critical climate still dominated by men, such feminine artists don’t always get the credit they deserve. But while testosterone-fuelled rock critics wax lyrical over the re-heated punk rock of the Strokes and re- fried blues of the White Stripes, Björk has once again crafted a work of outrageous originality. Far from being a classicist, Björk makes music that sounds as if the future has already arrived.

publié dans The Daily Telegraph (UK)