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45 at 33: The Sugarcubes’ first Birthday

The breakthrough single for Icelandic upstarts the Sugarcubes, Birthday sounds like absolutely nothing else ever created.

Recorded in both Icelandic and English, the song is strangely discordant, with a tumbling rhythm, strums of oddly tuned indie guitar, wheezing trumpet, and Björk Guðmundsdóttir’s mystical growly alien vocals. Her voice is a stunning force of nature — just listen to her sing, “She’s painting huge books and glues them together / they saw a big raven / it glided down the sky / she touched it!”

There’s an almost childlike simplicity in the evocative and pictorial lyrics. Björk captures the sense of a five-year-old’s wonder at the world, how children can find things endlessly fascinating and beautiful, as can grown-ups if they so choose. With Einar Örn playing the Fred Schneider role, the Sugarcubes sound like The B-52’s if they were born in an ocean on one of Saturn’s moons.

Birthday received immediate acclaim upon its release, becoming the single of the week in both NME and Melody Maker magazines, and the buzz around the band helped gave them their first UK chart entry in October 1987.

The 45 is included on the Sugarcubes’ debut album Life’s Too Good, a strikingly brilliant collection of oddball pop that is arguably on a par with almost anything Björk has released as a solo artist (and, yes, she’s put out some great ones).

Steve Pafford

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