Björk alters the landscape

Globe, 15 mai 1998

The Icelandic chanteuse takes her music beyond rock

The singer will be barefoot. She might be wearing a black-and-white French maid’s costume, or maybe, a spaghetti-strapped apron, a puffy white shirt, and a white petticoat, her face adorned with feline-like paint. She may sport butterfly wings. When a song is finished, she will curtsy after the applause. She probably will not address the audience except to say “thank you.” The stage will be rather dark.

There will be no guitars. No rock. It’s voice, strings, and electronic beats, emphasis on all three.

Maybe it’s because she hails from Iceland. Or maybe it’s just that this woman has never had much need for convention. But singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who goes by her first name, goes to places most other pop and rock people don’t dare.

Here is Björk’s description of the band supporting her at the Palladium in Worcester tomorrow night : “I’m bringing an eight-piece string section, like an orchestra [the Icelandic String Octet]. It’s the best string players Iceland has got to offer. For example, the leader [violinist Sigrún Eðvaldsdóttir] was voted one of the best 30 people of the whole world. She promises to be the classical musician of the next century. So, I am very, very spoiled rotten. And, then there’s Mark Bell, who I think is one of the electronic geniuses of the world. It’s very lush.”

So, think glissando and pizzicato, not power chord and riff. Think stately, entrancing, ethereal. But don’t forget to dance.

Bell handles that latter element—he’s the programmer, master of keyboards and beats.

Can this presentation be considered a rejection of rock ‘n’ roll or an embrace of classical arrangements ?

“It’s neither,” says Björk, on the phone. “It’s just doing what I want to do. I’m not on a mission to burn the guitars of the world. I find it very strange that people take [guitars] for granted [in rock] and everything else is strange. It’s like : You’ve got a lot of green dots and you want it all to be green and then you got one pink dot and everybody freaks out and loses balance and falls on their noses and breaks their arms.”

So it won’t be another night of old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. Don’t go reminiscing about the days of old. Björk’s sweeping, diva-esque vocals will mesh with strings and electronic beats, and her likely 85-minute set will rely heavily on her latest CD, “Homogenic,” which employed Bell and the octet. It’s the first album where she took the reins, wore the producer’s hat. Björk first came to the alt-rock world’s attention in Sugarcubes, the heavily collaborative, giddily disorienting band that folded in 1992. Her first two solo discs, “Debut” and “Post,” were also collaborative efforts.

Don’t expect many older hits tomorrow—or at least familiar versions of them. “I’ve arranged my old songs in that way,” she says of her strings-beats-voice approach. “I think it goes hand in hand. It’s been where I was heading and ‘Homogenic’ is where I went all the way.

“Europeans have been doing electronic music for 50 years,” Björk continues, “so this is not so strange for them ; it’s actually more roots music in Europe than rock music is. So, I was thinking ‘Poor old Americans, no wonder they’re all feeling confused and dizzy.’ But, then I watched this documentary on Lou Reed and he did an instrumental album in the ’70s, so why are you guys so surprised ?”

Well, the album in question, Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” sold about 12 copies and is a torturous adventure even by today’s industrial rock standards.

“But you’ve got bands like Devo,” Björk goes on, “and you’ve had electronic stuff for years.” She thinks American record stores lumping acts like Prodigy, Tricky, and Kraftwerk under “electronica” is as stupid as if a European record store had a category of “American music” and it included “rock, blues, jazz, Mardi Gras, bluegrass, and maybe South American music, too.”

Björk spent a long time by herself to think about and assemble “Homogenic.” Just as she was to begin the album, in September 1996, a crazed American fan killed himself after sending her a letter bomb that was intercepted by police. “Like 1 1/2 miracles,” she says now, of that scenario. “I think it’s something you obviously never forget. The tragedy of it all, but, yeah, I think I’m doing all right.”

The time on her own was productive. “You’re on your own,” she says, “nobody to interrupt, just focus on your work for many months and really concentrate. It was my duty to learn and go ahead—not just become a lazy ditz. In the end, I had a lot of help from Mark Bell, but I did the whole first picture, the sketch. While I was making it I had no particular consciousness of the musical direction, but was obviously aware of the luxury of not worrying about money, just work in a studio. I just happened—accidentally, emotionally— to be in a quite contemplative mood, where it seemed to fall into place. I guess everybody’s like that. Sometimes, it’s like ‘You go, girl !’ and sometimes it’s like, ‘Stop and look in the mirror.”’

Eumir Deodato, who had worked on the arrangement for “HyperBallad,” a song on “Post,” leant a hand.

Of the way all the elements coalesce on the album, Björk says, “It’s the fact that I want them to be how my life is in reality, and my life isn’t like I go out there and do monologues all day and everybody shows up when I’m talking. I’m not really interested in that. I always wanted to surround myself with characters that were as strong as me, if not stronger. And be in an environment I could be part of. The idea of being on some sort of ego trip, surrounded by servants, just doesn’t seem interesting or fascinating at all.

“I think if a person ever comes to the conclusion that she’s some sort of island and nothing can interfere, I think we’re in trouble.”

Is there a misconception about her ? Certainly the words “elfin” and “pixie” still get tossed around. Her psychedelic, cartoonlike videos certainly reinforce the idea that she’s not altogether grounded.

“I guess I find curious what people think,” she muses, “but I obviously think very different things. I see it from the inside. I think that I’m quite a commonsensical girl, you see. And I’m quite pleased that I fuel the imagination of people so much that they make me 10 times more interesting than I am. I’m quite flattered by that.”

Björk started her North American tour last week in Canada but, suffering from “exhaustion,” she needed to postpone her Worcester date a week. At press time, 46 tickets remain for tomorrow’s show.

par Jim Sullivan publié dans Globe