She’s a little ‘eccentric’ (OK, a lot), and if you try and strike up a conversation with her in the gym after she’s been for a run on the treadmill in her boyish blue boiler suit she’ll look at you like you’re completely crazy (I know, I know, but at least she didn’t hit me*). But hey, the irascible Icelander that is Björk Guðmundsdóttir is still one of the most audacious and innovative artists of our times. And it all started here…ish**.
During her long and diverse career, Björk has developed into the one of the most eclectic artists of contemporary music, keeping listeners on their toes with every release. And after the disbandment of The Sugarcubes, the Björk-fronted alternative rock band in 1992, she wasted no time in prepping her solo debut for wider public consumption.
It was on 1993’s conveniently titled Debut where Björk’s wistful form of art pop first came to life, and the results were enchanting. The record is a vibrant and fearless splash of everything special about an artist — an ideal debut, then, joining the likes of Roxy Music, The Kick Inside and The Lexicon Of Love an energetic, confident and utterly unique release to the world.
Nearly a quarter century later, it remains a graciously pure, exceedingly joyful experience.
Having visited Manchester to collaborate with dance pioneers 808 State, she witnessed first-hand the city’s nightlife, throwing herself into its vibrant hedonism. Her relationship with DJ Dominic Thrupp was her connection to London’s clubland, enabling her to build a network of like-minded creatives with whom she planned to collaborate to bring her ideas to life. Though she had originally planned to work with different producers depending on the style of music she was working on at the time, an introduction to Nellee Hooper was instrumental in bringing Debut to fruition.
There’s a sense of playfulness that makes her proper album debut** so charming, allowing it to stand out amongst a strikingly good discography. Though the tracklist opts for the same scattergun approach that many other debut albums also assume, there’s a real sense of achievement and accomplishment. Björk creates her own identity by combining seemingly contrasting genres and forming something entirely unique. This was the first sign of innovation in her career, breaking the mould of what it means to be a new, exciting artist.
Though Björk’s stunning vocals are undoubtedly the star of the show, it’s the brilliantly strange arrangements that often set the songs apart from generic ’90s dance music. The instrumentation sparkles out from her delivery, feeling like a natural extension of his voice. It’s unthinkable for them to sound any other way than they do. The opening spell of the record shakes and shimmers with the ice-cool MIDIness that would come to define much of the ‘90s. That electricity fades as Debut progresses, settling into something to drift in and out of rather than immerse yourself in completely, but I’m not sure I’d have it any other way. Playfulness and purity of Björk’s calibre needs room to express itself, imperfections be damned.
Björk’s announcement of herself to the world isn’t without its rough edges, but for me that’s part and parcel of what makes it such a joyous experience. It’s so uninhibited, so powerful. Björk drifts from dance to house to electronic, bringing each of them under her spell. With its foreboding timpani drums, lead single Human Behaviour sets the tone, a perfect opener that focuses on percussion and rhythm to produce a curious and satisfying electro-orchestral mix.
“Björk’s Debut and Post were mind-blowing records at the time—that somebody could use electronic beats and then do super innovative stuff with it. Then she continued doing things that explored lots of different other areas, with the Greenland Choir and with sounds made with the mouth. Once in awhile you see this amazing total artist, where you go, This person thinks about the stage, the shows, the costumes, the record covers, and the music, and it’s all part of a total thing.” — David Byrne
It’s a common focus throughout the album, but other sources of experimentation often push it to the sidelines. With the hops between genre and heavy leaning on electronic instrumentation of the time, it can feel like a scrapbook at times and certainly sounds like an album of the ’90s as the first six tracks sway between delicate, string-soaked beauty and pumping house, with Björk whispering in your ear about her ghetto blaster.
As an unashamed cynic of house music, I found myself both excited and confused by my affection for snarls and shrieks of Big Time Sensuality. The inclusion of a playful saxophone part is truly representative of what makes Björk so unique. The beautiful Venus As A Boy, one of her finest ever songs, has an exquisite arrangement, comprised of interesting samples, a textured beat, and gorgeous strings. Björk’s stunning vocal melodies add to what is already a beautiful piece of music.
If the first half of Debut is comprised of the classics, in vinyl terms the second side is where Björk delves into the more contemplative, experimental side of her abilities. Once again, the arrangements truly shine, particularly on One Day, Aeroplane and the hithery Come To Me, which make up the most unusual portion of the album. Aeroplane makes for a particularly interesting track, transporting the listener to a jazz band in a rainforest with shivering percussion, quarrelling saxophones and uneasy chord changes.where delightfully subtle melodies are sprinkled across the evolving soundscapes. The mind can be found wandering during these latter cuts, but it’s more of a comforting stroll than a grinding hike. Never does the music become stale.
To round the tracklist off, The Anchor Song is an elegant duet between Björk and Oliver Lake’s saxophone that makes for a strong, evocative end to the album. Instrumentals aside, Björk’s vocals soar across this record, adapting effortlessly to the tenderness of Like Someone In Love one minute, before delivering the manic intensity of Violently Happy the next.
Of course, Debut was only a sign of things to come: Björk would go on to expand her sonic reach and release a handful of incredibly innovative and accomplished records. There’s a certain ragged charm to her first record, however, that still holds up to a modern listeners ears today as a quirky album, full to the brim with fun, something that would soon disappear. It’s not even the best Björk album, but Debut stands out as the most playful, entertaining and jubilant in her entire career.
*Björk and I were London neighbours on the West Hampstead/Kilburn/Maida Vale border for much of the Nineties and early Noughties, and attended the same Livingwell gym on Kilburn High Road for a while. All I‘ll say is she’s as eccentric as her public image suggests.
**At the grand old age of 11, Björk released a self-titled album in Iceland in 1977, but is regarded by most to be juvenilia work and it is not included in the singer’s official solo discography, hence the 1993 release Debut is widely considered to be her first studio album