Björk again

The Face, 1er juin 1993

The former Sugarcube and ice princess has teamed up with Nelle Hooper and made a truly great pop album.

It’s barely June and already the word on the street is that “Debut” is a strong contender for album of the year. If such spurious claims stick in your craw, smack of media hype, record company bullshit and hysterical journalists desperately seeking out The Next Big Thing, then try swallowing this. For once, they could just be right. A creative collision between the errant imagination of ex-Sugarcube and indie ice queen Björk Guðmundsdóttir and the mighty production skills of Nellee Hooper, the name behind the polished Soul II Soul vibe, “Debut” is, quite simply, stunning. Although it speaks the same language as dance music in parts thundering basslines, disco finger snaps and bouncing beats—“Debut” is also a delightful fusion of thrash metal, jazz, funk and opera, with the odd dash of exotica thrown in for good measure. It’s an album uncomfortable with any category and open to absolutely everyone.

“I want music to be more real,” exclaims Björk. “More what your day is like. Music has to be more like a film. I love listening to film soundtracks because they capture lots of different moods. It allows human feelings to exist, the music allows you to be a bit unpredictable whereas pop music today is so clinical and sterile. There’s so much bad pop music around that people don’t believe in magic any more.”

“Debut” has been a long time coming. These are songs that have been swimming around Björk’s head since she was a child, saved like precious secrets and only revealed when she felt good and ready. While the lyrics consolidate her love affair with language, her unique vocals are played like an instrument, soaring ethereally, bringing on yelps, balling into little explosions of rage and dropping into conspiratorial whispers. There’s no discipline. No conventional style. Just emotion run riot. And it sounds great. Drafting in Darren Emmerson to remix the single “Human Behaviour” and employing Nellee Hooper to stitch the album together may seem like a calculated attempt to buy credibility through club-culture, but perhaps it’s worth remembering Björk’s canny alliance with 808 State and her frequent appearances along the balearic network at nights such as Manchester’s Most Excellent. Initially intending to work with a variety of producers such as 808 State’s Graham Massey to match the eclectic mood of “Debut”, she eventually settled for Nellee’s services.

“A friend of mine suggested we work together and I was a bit suspicious to begin with,” confesses Björk. “I had to ask what he had done. I like Soul II Soul, but mainly when they’re on the radio. Myself, I like to go out and dance to hardcore or industrial techno, hard beats with an experimental edge. I thought Nellee was too ‘good taste’ for my liking. But then I met him, got to know him, got to hear about his fabulous ideas and it ended up with him producing the whole album.”

The release of “Debut” catapults Björk into a new league. That of seriously devastating diva. Having always previously been perceived under the shadow of the Sugarcubes and in the light of her Icelandic heritage and hippy commune upbringing, she has always been viewed as an unknown commodity, an oddball with sexy elfin looks and a killer voice to boot. Dangling between the curiously sublime and the plain ridiculous, the Sugarcubes were performance art-cum-punk nihilists who painted a David Lynch landscape of suburban psychosis with their eerie alien songs. As quickly as they were hailed as the saviours of indie pop with tracks as hauntingly beautiful as “Birthday” and whacked-out as “Regina”, they were hurled off centre stage for refusing to play up to the great expectations fans and the music media had for this kitsch band from a funny foreign land.

“The Sugarcubes were a bit of a clique, you know—we had been going for years before people in Britain discovered us. When we became so famous, so talked about after our first record, we said ‘Fuck the world’, and decided to make the most unpredictable album [the disjointed second LP ‘Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week’] we could.”

Now living in London, having left the culturally bleak climes of Iceland, relinquished the arduous trek of touring and escaped the determinedly democratic confines of the band, Björk is making the most of her new liberation.

“The Sugarcubes was always so much more than just music. We had all known each other since we were nine. We loved and respected each other so much, it became difficult to assert your own viewpoint—it was a bit like a marriage. We became afraid of stepping on each other, which is why I had to change partners. With me and Nellee it was very intimate—even though I wrote all the songs, it’s hard for me to take full credit for them because we were so dependent on each other. It was great, you forgot about eating, you didn’t have to go to the cinema. We got lost in music !” And therein lies the beauty of “Debut”. Although essentially a solo project, with Björk apologising for the fact she had to be a little selfish to indulge her ideas—“I had to get my songs out, or else I’d have felt guilty for the rest of my life”—she is cool enough to allow other people to share her spotlight. For the brief but beautiful torch song “Like Someone In Love”, her voice is stripped to its bare bones, accompanied only by a harp, played by Corky Hale whose credits include playing alongside Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

“She’s 80 years old, you know,” enthuses Björk breathlessly. “She’s this tough old lady who lives right at the top of a high-rise building in New York, plays her harp out on the balcony and smokes cigars. I don’t think she quite knew what to make of me because her music was so moving I kept bursting into tears. But that’s why I love working with people—it’s my favourite thing because they bring out so many different parts of you. I don’t feel a need to be by myself. I don’t get it. It’s like masturbating, or talking to yourself or living on your own in a house, I’d much rather be around people, communicating, and that’s how I like to make music”.

par Mandi James publié dans The Face