The Initial Position

It’s pretty much impossible to move in the field of pop culture for the past three decades and not face Björk at least once. And although I never took a full dive into her discography before (for reasons I can’t explain) I realised that my life has crossed paths with the Icelandic icon a few times before. When I was 11 or 12 that weird Army Of Me video really fascinated me. The images of the gorilla and the huge diamond somehow are still in the back of my brain. Same goes for the love-making robots of All Is Full Of Love which is also a great song. I remember that I really loved the song Joga when it came out around 1997. That was a time when I was sill heavily influenced by whatever was in the charts back then but since it was the 90s there was also room for Björk. Later I lost track but I always associated Björk with visually quite impressive music videos, a medium she still pushes very much forward to this day. She barely plays live concerts but ironically I managed to attend her two most recent ones in Germany. One was her headline performance at the 2008 Melt Festival. I think I wasn’t ready for her back then, stood in the background and didn’t pay much attention. I mean, that was a time when I was more looking forward to see the hottest new indie and ‘nu rave’ stuff. Still, I remember that massive performance of Declare of Independence which was quite a thing. Second time was her performance at the Berlin Festival (which later turned into the Lollapalooza) in 2013. While I was more looking forward to the other two headlines (the reunited Blur and my dearest Pet Shop Boys) I really enjoyed Björk‘s show I must say. Especially the sound was surprisingly good for a festival show, I think she brought a massive choir with her and also wore a head made of, I don’t know, spikes or something. So yeah, me and Björk “met” a few times before and considering the fact that I’m usually up for atmospheric and slightly experimental electronic pop this Lockdown Listening Challenge should be a no-brainer, right? Well, we will see …

Ancient Icelandic indie times

Did you know that Björk‘s 1993 album Debut isn’t actually her musical solo debut? She actually released a self-titled record as a kid in her native language in 1977 which – well – is probably one she likes to ignore and I’m doing her the favour of joining her on this and leave this one out for now. But this actually appears to be a funky little piece of psychedelic pop. You know, the stuff you like to record as an 11-year old. It’s up on YouTube and you should give it a spin. Later in the 1980s Björk formed The Sugarcubes, a cult indie band from Iceland and I decided to actually start with this band by giving their best-of-record The Great Crossover Potential a spin which combines the best tunes from their three studio albums. Birthday is apparently their biggest hit although it’s technically not a catchy tune. The music of The Sugarcubes is a nice variation of the famous UK and US indie wave sound of the times. A more twisted version of The Smiths, maybe and Björk’s expressive and distinctive vocal performance clearly stands out here. It truly sounds like she was meant for to head for her own musical adventure.

Following that detour 1993’s Debut is next in line. I think I’ve listened to this one before although I can’t remember it in detail. But of course I remember the tribal-like groove of the opening Human Behaviour. I forgot how poppy this album still is compared to the more abstract Björk of the later years. Cherry and Big Time Sensuality got that early 90s house music vibe I grew up with and there’s an instant nostalgic connection here. The record’s producer Nellee Hooper is a big player in the field of this decades pop production so that make sense. I remember having read that Björk’s records are also heavily affected by the producer she picks for them. So, Debut is still pretty much pop although reduced tracks á la Like Someone In Love (harp and vocal) and The Anchor Song (clarinet and vocal) already hint on a different path. But then again, There’s More To Life Than This is an actual party anthem and I’m quite surprised to be confronted with this one. That also goes for the rave-infected Violently Happy. I must say, I’m really enjoying this album because it’s catchy and I got a thing for the sound this era. However, Björk‘s voice will be a challenge here. It often feels off tune and it’s not what the listener would expect here. But that’s also what might make her unique and separates her from other pop artists of that era.

Now, that’s what I call Björk

Ah, that familiar sound. As I told you Army Of Me is my earliest musical memory and I haven’t listened to it in years. Luckily it opens her second album Post and it’s a good musical sign for the turn her music takes. This 1995 album appears to be combining the more pop-oriented vibe of its predecessor with the more experimental stuff that’s about to enter her musical cosmos. It’s different producers this time (Nellee Hooper returns but trip-hop experts Tricky and Howie B are also here), so it’s a bit less cohesive this time. Hyper-Ballad is a great discovery. It starts quite slow but turns into a pumping rave anthem towards the end. End a track like Enjoy continues to follow the gritty path of Army Of Me. Well, and then there’s an odd song like the swinging It’s Oh So Quiet. Of course I remember this big band detour and it’s actually absolute nonsense to include it on this album. It doesn’t fit… and maybe that’s the whole point of it. Björk plays with expectations and this is just a giant musical middle-finger to tell people “You have your opinion on me? Well, screw that.” You never know what’s around the next corner. The artist’s tendency to place herself in a more orchestral setting is sensible in songs like Isobel and it gets even better when you add a bit groove into it. I Miss You is a song that was just made for her voice. Post is an interesting record, not quite as catchy as its predecessor and a bit indecisive. It’s pretty transitional album in retrospect.

1997’s Homogenic sees producer Mark Bell entering the cosmos of Björk which was pretty much a game-changer. I know Bell mainly for his work on Depeche Mode‘s controversial 2001 album Exciter which I really like but many fans of the wave pop icons don’t. Think Martin Gore picked Bell because of his reduced and raw attempt towards electronic sounds he showed on Björk’s albums and I really get that while listening to it. His approach to leaving the sound reduced while making it “blip” and “bleep” is pretty unique. Right from the moment Hunter opens the album you know that we’re enterting the abstract side of Björk I mostly associate with her. Unravel is pretty much how I imagine a Björk song in my mind. Joga is still pretty breathtaking and I also remember Bachelorette from my old 90s music TV days. A The noisy Pluto might be the best example of Bell’s influence on this album. A tricky, noisy little bastard. I think I should probably give this one another spin the other day to understand it better. Compared to Post Homogenic is more… well, what the title implies. It’s a cohesive approach and I think I should definitely give the music videos a spin now to understand this whole Björk thing even better.

Context is crucial

After giving my Lockdown Listening Challenge a short break I thought about – “Why sticking to the daily routine here?”, so I decided to shake that up and give Björk’s music more time space and also context to unfold its magic on me. First of it, a kind follower on Instagram suggested me to watch 2003’s documentary Inside Björk which luckily is available on YouTube so I decided to do that. It’s a partly surprising list of famous people (never expected Missy Elliot to be a fan) and colleagues talking about the unique artist Björk is. And of course, the songwriter herself gets a chance to explain her approach a bit better which is especially important for a newbie like me. More than the artists I approached before in this little experiment Björk’s music needs context to be understood as a multi-disciplinary work of art. Of course, her origins and roots are important. Björk is deeply connected to Iceland and its rare nature. She later realizes that nature itself is a spiritual force that guides her through life and when she talks about influences when she was younger it wasn’t necessarily music that shaped her – it were the sounds of nature she found inspiring, something that makes the musical attempt of 1997’s Homogenic more logic for me where she explores her connection to these roots and also sampled volcanic sounds apparently. The reason why she never played by the rule book of popular music is because she simply wasn’t raised by it and you need to understand that to make sense of these compositions and her almost shamanic approach towards singing.

What I also learned besides the fact that Elton John really, really loves Björk is the fact that she approaches every record like a story of its own. it starts with the cover that always shows herself and continues via the sound ideas and the music videos. I find it kind of hard to explain this but there’s no coincidence right here. She unapologetically follows her own artistic vision in every aspect and even in her 1990s phase she was always seeking for the next musical innovation in the field of electronic and classical music. I can’t help but wonder whether Björk will one day actually record a proper guitar rock album. I mean, the whole idea sounds too basic for her but you never knew about her. After watching a few videos and understanding the context and themes of the records a bit better I begin to understand the whole thing a bit better. Björk is not simply a quite ambitious and experimental songwriter, she’s an artist through and through. That sort of Bowie-like artist that finds it challenging to connect with ‘normal’ life and a simple musical approach. I think she goes even further than Bowie in this. I will definitely keep all that in mind as I continue my journey through her back catalogue.

Embracing the abstract (sort of)

With a little bit more information in my head 2001’s Vespertine record doesn’t feel as weird as it might have felt otherwise. This one is even more focussed on reduced blipping and bleeping electronic sounds although Mark Bell wasn’t involved this time (well, due to the already mentioned Depeche Mode commitment). Instead producer duo Matmos helped Björk to create microbeats out of various household sounds. And her love for classical orchestration grows even bigger on this one. I think she also enlisted Console from German indietronic institution The Notwist for this album which makes sense for these bright and reduced sounds. Cocoon is a favourite that really clicks with me here. The whole album deals with intimacy, love and the artist’s own understanding of her body and sexuality. If you take a look at the very intimate music videos she released for the album you get an idea of what she means by that. I like this album, I must say. It got that cohesive and very romantic feel (I mean, just take the moment she sings “I love him, I love him” in Pagan Poetry) and there’s no noisy detour this time which makes it a nice listening experience, especially at night or in the early hours.

Listening to Björk in the early hours feels like a fitting way for me especially since the rest of my home isolated days are so stuffed with work. So, I continue that routine with 2004’s Medúlla on the next day – and again: this is not what I expected. By now I’m not approaching these albums without giving their Wikipedia entry at least a little read to know about the context. Her fifth full-length is the vocal-album she always wanted to do after growing up with choirs and joint singing a lot in Iceland but of course it gets a modern twist as well. So, this album was mostly built on vocals whether they are from a choir, Mika Patton from Faith No More or Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq … well, and of course Björk. Mark Bell adds sparse electronica to it but mostly turns the vocals into beats and sounds as well. So, yeah it’s basically an acapella album and people who know me know that I don’t like acapella music. I mean, since it’s Björk she does that quite cleverly on Medúlla. There’s even a sort-of pop song on the album with Who Is It. But then there’s songs like Where Is The Line and Ancestors which are slightly disturbing. It’s a fascinating record from a production perspective because I see what Björk and Bell are aiming for here. But from an emotional level it really doesn’t click with me. There’s no connection for me. I appreciate how they wanted to form an electronic dance song out of just vocals on Triumph Of A Heart at the end but to me it just sounds ridiculous. I’m sorry, Björk, me and Medúlla won’t become best buddies

Moving on to album number six, Volta which was supposed to mark a return to a more commercial side of Björk’s sound. Well, obviously this is quite an overstatement. So, basically any album that follows Medúlla would have been more commercial. Still, I didn’t know that Timbaland was involved in it. I mean, back in 2007 Timbaland was pretty much involved in every commercial pop hit on the planet, it appears but I wouldn’t expect him to show up on a Björk album. He does on two songs, one of them being the opening song Earth Intruders, a tribal-infected anthem. The American hit producer also worked on Innocence which partly feels indeed like a return to the 90s melodie-loving Björk although it comes with a huge dose of electro clash this time. However, I’m not entirely surprised to see ANOHNI showing up on two songs, she’s a fitting vocal companion for the Icelandic artist. There is less of a theme this time – well, actually “Björk having fun” might be a fitting theme this time which might also explain the colourful artwork. It’s kind of relieving to see that she is still able to do that. Declare Of Independence is that noisy revolutionary banger that you wouldn’t expect from her but where you somehow aren’t totally surprised that it shows up. Obviously this is more my stuff and the music videos from that era are also pretty good. Just take a look at Wanderlust and you’ll see what I mean.

An exhausting exploration

As I continue my journey through Björk’s musical world (which I mainly time for the early hours before a busy work schedule) I can’t help but to notice a slight feeling of exhaustion. The lines between the records start to blur, my mind as problems separate them completely. And I actually find myself getting less excited exploring a new one. Biophilia from 2011 won’t click with me. Björk and Mark Bell picked a more reduced approach here again, putitng harps, guitars and simple analogue electronic sounds in the foreground. But they also welcome the noise back like on the sudden jungle beats outbreak towards the end of Crystalline. The record feels a bit more atonal than Volta. Chaotic and unpleasant. I’m lacking of energy to follow her on this path. It’s not as weird as Medúlla but also not something that excites me a lot. The follow-up, Vulnicura, however, feels a bit more like my thing. Following the sad passing of Bell Björk found a new ally in Brazilian prodigy Arca who co-produced the album with her, along with The Haxan Cloak. Despite that more modern approach this eighth album actually sounds and feels like a flashback to the Homogenic era as it features a similar approach regarding the string melodies and the electronic beats. Yes, they are a little more modern but also quite old-fashioned. It’s Björk’s personal break-up record as she stated and that might explain this rawer attempt towards the music than on the arty predecessor. I enjoy Vulnicura a bit more although I’m lacking of interest in following its wider cosmos. Because there are countless videos, an online exhibit and a companion string album. That’s what you get from her these days. And it’s probably the same with Utopia, her latest release from 2017. I like the messages of these which seem to deal a lot with feminism and the environment so much respect for this, obviously. Still, there’s plenty you can discover next to the actual album. She did a lot with flutes around it, I think. Well, it’s a full package but one I find myself being less interested with time, at least at the end of these past 8,9 days.

The verdict

So, what do we make out of this Lockdown Listening Challenge? Reading and watching a lot about Björk‘s art and her approach towards these records really helped me to understand her as an artist a bit better. It is possible to detach the music from the visual surrounding and the story that comes with it and fans of experimental electronic avant-garde sounds might really enjoy this. If you’re looking for catchy melodies things are getting quite tough once Björk leaves the 1990s besides. I find myself enjoying the albums on the brink of that the most – 1997’s Homogenic and 2001’s Verspertine. From the really – well, let’s just stick with the term “difficult” – Medúlla I find it harder to access the music. The later records still have good moments and 2015’s Vulnicura might be my favourite here but I haven’t built the connection one needs to also enjoying all the side-projects that come with every new Björk release. Remix albums, videos, exhibitions, apps, additional orchestral interpretations- yes, you get the whole package and if you ask me whether I’m interested to take a closer look at this package I can clearly answer: No, thank you.

Maybe it’s impossible to dive into Björk‘s music within just a few weeks. It really needs years and the iconic status she has right now wouldn’t be possible without the three decades that led up to it. I think you need this time … well, and you need the time between releases. While her first albums up to Vespertine are more traditional and find a good balance between oddness and accessibility these later albums really need your time. Probably more than 2 or 3 plays. They need a few weeks maybe and that’s probably better to manageable if you follow her usual release schedule that brings a new album every three, four years. What I learned in the time of my challenge is not only the influence Björk hat on entire generation of musicians, especially female artists. Her whole career also comes with a different approach towards music, songwriting and its visual representation compared to how I usually deal with these things. Björk’s music got a context, a full story and an already tight concept. That’s not entirely bad but it leaves so little to your own interpretation I sometimes think. And maybe it’s a good lesson for a guy like me who usually approaches music in a more intuitive and emotional way to also learn about a different ways of the art form that is music. Honestly, that might have also been the reason why I was scaring away from Björk’s music for most of my life. But that challenge made me a bit less afraid of it and embracing this different philosophy… at least to a certain degree (it won’t  make me a fan of acapella music… never!). I will actually continue to explore some of her work in the not so distant future. There are still a few things I need to cross of my Björk bucket list, mostly her Lars Von Trier movie called Dancer In The Dark from 2000. And I also want to explore some of these remix records as well. Maybe then I’ll be well prepared for the next official Björk release. The current lockdown is a fitting time to do that, don’t you agree?

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