The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

Big Time Sensuality – An Introduction to Björk

Debut (1993)

A technical contradiction in terms at the outset, as of course Debut was not Björk’s first album, its title definitely signified a re-launch of sorts, introducing the world at large to an exceptional and beguiling talent, and completely on her own terms. In truth, several of the songs on Debut had been gestating for up to a decade, ever since Björk was in punk bands like KUKL and Spit And Snot even before The Sugarcubes formed. Aware that they would never suit those artists, she kept them to herself. Relocating to London after The Sugarcubes’ demise in the early Nineties – in her words, because “I wanted danger, I wanted threats” – and immersing herself in culture and a new friendship circle, she sketched them out with the assistance of 808 State’s Graham Massey and Soul II Soul producer Nellee Hooper, cross-pollinating ideas like a musical bumblebee.

Debut makes sense of all of the disparate elements and influences that Björk was taking in with the life she was living – techno, trip-hop, ambient, pop, jazz and Bollywood soundtracks – and infuses them with a palpable sense of wide-eyed wanderlust, almost a naiveté in the sheer joy of being alive, as if the recordings themselves captured the manic energy of their genesis. The pulsing ambient house of ‘Violently Happy’, the shimmering beauty of ‘Venus As A Boy’, the intrigue and giddy thrills of ‘Human Behaviour’, ecstatic highs and lows of ‘Play Dead’ and ‘Come To Me’… packed with radio hits and sensual deep cuts, Debut represented a new futurism that took many years for others to catch up with. No longer was the ‘singer-songwriter’ concept wedded to the acoustic-guitar-and-gritty-honesty paradigm; passionate solo artistry could now encompass a multitude of styles and sounds.

Although it undoubtedly forged the ‘stardust pixie’ image of Björk that proved difficult to shift – reinforced by the rather shy and polite front cover featuring the singer herself, as if she wants to share a secret with you – there’s much more depth to her style on Debut. Signposts to her future are evident on the abstract ‘The Anchor Song’, the woozy brass of ‘Aeroplane’ and the striking harp-based cover of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Like Someone In Love’. This diversity spoke to a restless soul at the centre of it all, keen not be perceived in just one way. Racing to five million worldwide sales within a year and spawning five hit singles, Debut reached far, far more people than The Sugarcubes ever had or could, and stands as one of the most influential and relevant records of the last 25 years. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Post (1995)

With a title and front cover suggesting a homesickness for her native Iceland, as well as an internationalist embrace, Björk’s second album was a very different kind of masterpiece. Post transposed the accessibility of Debut onto the kind of high-yield experimentation with which we now associate her. With hindsight, it scans as a transitional album, a half-way point in a journey from the pop brilliance of Debut to the flawless, icy-blue electronics of Homogenic. At the time, it was treated as a refreshing alternative to rock dominance in music, with many praising it for avoiding the pitfalls of a play-safe sequel.

Post is bold experimentalism anchored in mainstream sensibility, the result of Björk’s choice to challenge her audience with the platform she had earned two years previously. Retaining Hooper and Massey from Debut and also taking on some of the most cutting-edge producers in dance, from Tricky to Howie B, she delivered a grab-bag record of startling contrasts in mood and texture that nevertheless made sense as an avant-pop whole. Sonically, it proved fertile ground for the imaginations of others, as evidenced by the release of a companion remix album, Telegram.

The assertive, moody opener ‘Army Of Me’, also the album’s lead single (UK #10), immediately signalled the end of the polite version of Björk from Debut. With its booming, marching drum pattern, it’s in many ways the straightest song on an album of shifting narrative voices and evasive music. An additional five UK Top 40 singles were squeezed from Post ‘Isobel’ (#23), ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ (#4), ‘Hyperballad’ (#8), ‘Possibly Maybe’ (#13), ‘I Miss You’ (#36) – the last of which was released in February 1997, a full 20 months after the album’s release. But it’s not just about the singles – the brooding trip-hop of ‘Enjoy’ never lets the atmospherics of what was then a new and fashionable genre overwhelm it. The minimalist vignettes of ‘You’ve Been Flirting Again’ and the Eastern scales of ‘Cover Me’ are there purely to give the listener some space to gather their thoughts, but are atmospheric enough to retain your attention.

Post is like seeing a half-completed skyscraper that still has the scaffolding around it, and the fact that you can still see the seams and the method of its construction makes it all the more fascinating. Including the marvellously kitsch brass-fuelled ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, standing out like a sore thumb in a sequence of cutting-edge electronica and dance, Post was totally spectacular, its lasting joy deriving from its eclectic, random state of not quite knowing what it wants to be, a snapshot of Björk in a period of transition, heading towards a shimmering, gleaming future for pop music. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Homogenic (1997)

Björk was already one of the most celebrated pop artists in the world as she prepared to record her third solo studio album, but what she was about to deliver exceeded even the most optimistic predictions. Marking the first of many collaborations with former LFO production wiz Mark Bell, one of the most significant creative partners in Björk’s career, Homogenic is a work of flawless sonic beauty as well as being cavernously, almost bottomlessly deep in its emotional clout.

Adding an extra dimension of personality to the excellent genre-roulette of Post, her third record tried even harder to dispel her reputation as a whimsical pop fairy that she had been lumbered with since Debut, and showed her to be an artist of serious emotional gravitas with a more monochrome and singular effort. A crystalline fusion of chilly strings and stuttering, glitchy beats and state-of-the-art production, combined with Björk’s predisposition for idiosyncratic songs and vocals, Homogenic flits between dark, uncompromising and moody tracks like ‘Hunter’ and ‘All Neon Like’ and sad, heartbreakingly stark future-ballads in the likes of ‘Bachelorette’ and ‘All Is Full Of Love’. There’s the booming hip-hop inflections of ‘Alarm Call’, the raging meltdown of ‘Pluto’, the crestfallen ‘Jóga’ with its fluttering drums and kicks… it’s as strange and uncompromising an album as popular music has ever produced.

All the while, Björk sits at the centre of the maelstrom – calm and impassive, just as she looks with that steely, unfuckwithable stare on the album’s front cover set against iridescent grey and icy blue. Homogenic’s contents reflect that packaging, the mechanical and the organic working in harmonious symmetry, showcasing a newly focussed side of the singer compared to the gleeful eclecticism of the past and embracing all of her contradictory instincts to make a coherent whole.

Homogenic yielded five incredible singles, but in truth every one of its ten tracks was worthy of stand-alone treatment. Even by Björk’s consistently incredibly high standards, Homogenic is a very clear all-time career best, and sounds utterly fearless and completely futuristic even two decades later. Bowing out of the Nineties off the back of three modern masterpieces, Björk was at the very peak of her game. (10/10) (LISTEN)

Vespertine (2001)

Having done so much to shape the electronic music of the Nineties, Björk was completely unfazed by the task of following up one of the most substantial and complete albums of the previous decade. Rather, she went about doing the same for the decade ahead, consciously aiming to make a record whose sound quality wouldn’t be compromised by the then-rising trend in P2P-file sharing. Working on Selmasongs as a pressure-free exercise in the interim provided Björk with the inspiration and breathing space she needed for a fresh burst of creativity, along with the poetry of E. E. Cummings and her new romance with artist Matthew Barney. Enlisting experimental artists Thomas Knak (Opiate), Martin Gretschmann (Console), American duo Matmos and English composer Marius de Vries as co-producers, she made a completely different kind of beautiful and avant-garde album with Vespertine.

The same spirit of introspection and thoughtfulness from Selmasongs inhabited the new album. Custom-made music boxes, home-made ‘microbeats’ made from sampling the sound of cards being shuffled or ice being cracked, and a swathe of harps, glistening strings and celestial noises served as the musical bedding for lyrics about the rush, thrills and nervousness of new love. In her words, she was looking for a sound that was “short, percussive and sweet”. Songs like the stunning ‘Hidden Place’ or the resplendent ‘It’s Not Up To You’, somehow spoke to a more introverted and complicated soul than the personality portrayed on Debut through Homogenic. The synthetic and the organic once again meld perfectly, but this time for a more intimate experience on tracks like ‘Undo’. The sub-bass groans and sighs, and often complex arrangements, made for a tricky listen at times (‘Cocoon’, for example, is so gossamer-light it’s barely there) but a thoroughly rewarding one with time and perseverance.

Simply put, in 2001, only Radiohead were doing anything as forward-thinking in the world of pop as Björk here. While touring the record, Björk eschewed big indoor venues and selected intimate theatre settings in order to bring the close, atmospheric songs of Vespertine to life in the best context. It was a suite of songs that sounded totally modern and yet had an instantly timeless quality. Not only was Vespertine another successful reinvention for Björk, it also demonstrated that up-to-the-minute production and a human heart were not exclusive elements. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Medúlla (2004)

Drawing a line under the first phase of her career with a fan-voted Greatest Hits collection in 2002, Björk told the world “I could do absolutely anything right now” – and we believed her. She resolved to double down on the experimental bent evident on Vespertine to make her strangest yet arguably most distinctive collection yet with Medúlla, a record that marked the start of a new phase in Björk’s career. Resuming her creative partnership with Mark Bell once again, she constructed an album almost entirely with human voices, hiring vocal artists such as Faith No More’s Mike Patton, beat-boxers Rahzel and Dokaka, and Inuit throat singer Tanya Gillis. Tapping into different kinds of folk music from around the world and resolving the strands into a (vaguely) coherent whole, Medúlla is arguably Björk at her most international.

It also seems to represent the end of Björk ‘the pop star’ in the way that the public consumed her music. Tours and live performances became less frequent as her music grew increasingly difficult to replicate for audiences (although she did memorably perform at that year’s Olympics opening ceremony) as she kept forging headlong into experimental territory, leaving her competitors miles behind her. Simultaneously, the bottom fell out of the singles market at around the same time, meaning that Björk stopped having hits in the way she had in the Nineties.

Critics were initially divided by this suite of vocal fantasias and sensual chamber music, but almost everybody soon agreed that it was a fascinating examination of the world’s oldest musical instrument. The rolling ‘R’s, guttural grunts, angelic sighs and elongated vowels created by the enormous cast of vocal characters reflected Mark Bell’s chopped and soaring arrangements behind them. When it really worked, such as the creeping ‘Where Is The Line’ and the heavenly ‘Oceania’, Medúlla was absolutely stunning, but it occasionally felt more like standing in a museum – easier to admire than to really love. While it lacked obvious singles and didn’t quite hold the listener’s rapt attention like previous albums had done so effortlessly, Medúlla was merely very impressive rather than brilliant – a rare occasion in Björk’s career that this minor criticism has applied. (8/10) (LISTEN)

Volta (2007)

After another complex soundtrack piece in the form of 2005’s Drawing Restraint 9, a companion to her partner Matthew Barney’s film, Björk tacked back towards the mainstream slightly with her sixth studio effort Volta, deciding to have a bit of fun having spent so long ahead of the curve with the serious, studied output that had characterised her new millennium thus far. Assembling a bewildering array of guest collaborators, such as ANOHNI, Chris Corsano, Konono No. 1 and Brian Chippendale, to multiple producers such as Timbaland, Mark Bell and Danja, this was to be one of Björk’s most collaborative work yet as she cast her net as wide as possible.

This was signalled with the Timbaland production ‘Earth Intruders’, the album’s opener and lead single, but, despite the beat-orientated nature of most of the album, it was to be no crossover into the pop world. The following ‘Wanderlust’, the brooding horns and contemplative mood providing the yin to ‘Earth Intruders’ yang. These lurches from one mood to a completely different one sets the tone for Volta, a record that covers a lot of emotional territory while remaining characteristically eccentric and left of centre. She explored lustrous hook-ups with Antony Hegarty (now ANOHNI) on ‘The Dull Flame Of Desire’, whose funereal lyrics were an English translation of a Russian poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, then taking in fevered despair with ‘Pneumonia’ and the tender ‘My Juvenile’.

Elsewhere, the bonkers beat onslaught of ‘Declare Independence’ and the strong, gut-punching beats of ‘Innocence’ showed that, in Björk’s world, the idea of purity could be powerful as well as pretty. Its overarching themes are of reconnecting with nature, in regards to the planet’s well-being and our spiritual selves. Selling over a million copies worldwide, a remix album and accompanied by a huge 18-month world tour (captured in live album Voltaic) that represents the last time Björk seriously interfaced with her global fanbase, Volta still stands up as one of the more varied efforts in Björk’s catalogue, and a great place for a newcomer to begin. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Biophilia (2011)

The genus of Björk’s first new album of the 2010s originated in the decade previously, with her environmental activism leading to the foundation of nature awareness organisation Náttúra in 2008, along with a stand-alone single of the same name with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Out of this grew the Biophilia project, which as well as a seventh studio album would also embrace technology, with installations, live shows, and app and other online features. Specially invented instruments were also utilised on the record – including a ‘gameleste’ (a cross between a gamelan and a celeste that could be controlled remotely via a tablet), a Tesla coil and a set of pendulums that could detect the movements of the Earth.

The album’s themes plugged directly into the music on display, with Björk expressing the natural phenomenon described in a particular track by linking it to a musical structure or aspect. The repeating phrases of ‘Moon’, for instance, reflect lunar cycles; ‘Thunderbolt’ is constructed around arpeggios, inspired by the time between when lightning is seen and thunder is heard; and ‘Solstice’ makes reference to the movement of planets, the Earth’s rotation and the changing of the seasons. The lyrics also reflect their musical surroundings, marrying natural phenomena with human behaviours: ‘Virus’ explores “fatal relationships” such as the relationship between a virus and a cell, obviously bleeding through into real life with toxic romances, while the geologically themed ‘Mutual Core’ contains fabulous phrases like “as fast as your fingernail grows / the Atlantic ridge drifts”.

Highly conceptual records like this always risk falling into a vortex of their own self-importance, or at least seem difficult to really love, but the result with Biophilia was quite staggeringly beautiful. It’s Björk at the height of her ‘earth-mother’ aesthetic, with the overarching mood being one of serenity. However, this is occasionally shot through with violent or unstable sequences, reminding the listener that nature is as fearful a force as anything man-made, and ought to be respected. The mind-bending jungle breakdown interrupts the tranquillity of ‘Crystalline’ with such force that it’s almost traumatic, while the funereal ‘Mutual Core’ erupts in a frenzy of computerised beats on two occasions.

Biophilia is one of her least immediately accessible records, and often feels like standing in a museum staring at beautiful objets-d’art but not being able to touch the exhibits, but as ever, Björk can always be counted upon to anchor the most ambitious of concepts in user-friendliness. The app, which allowed users to play around with the tracks’ musical structures and effectively remix the material, made Biophilia feel more human and tangible, as did the brilliant 2012 remix album Bastards. A mixture of archaic instrumentation with bleeding-edge production, it’s one of the 2010s’ least appreciated achievements. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Vulnicura (2015)

Meaning ‘cure for wounds’ in Latin (vulnus + cura, linguistics nerds!), Björk’s eighth album is almost universally thought of as a break-up album, detailing her split from long-term boyfriend Matthew Barney. Though this ought to make it a kind of a polar negative of Vespertine, the album with which it shares the most similarity is Homogenic, with its fusion of up-to-the-minute electronica and icy orchestral arrangements creating yet more staggering sonic architecture.

Vulnicura had originally been intended to be released in conjunction with the opening of an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the release of an archival book in March 2015, but an internet leak saw the date brought forward by almost two months. Produced mainly in conjunction with Venezuelan hot-shot producer Arca (who, by age 23, had already recently worked with FKA twigs and on Kanye West’s Yeezus) and with string arrangements from British producer The Haxan Cloak, the record contained no singles at all, although a series of innovative music videos were created to promote Vulnicura, a project that culminated in the highly acclaimed 360 degree-VR ‘Björk Digital’ exhibition the following summer.

The sense of emotional chaos created by Arca’s fluid, mutating chains of beats, which were and still are quite unlike anything else in modern pop, serve as a perfect musical context for the heartbreak and upheaval that Björk was pouring out. Unlike the Hallmark greeting-card sentiments of someone like Adele, however, most of it is tangential and expressed in metaphors – the multi-segmented 10-minute centrepiece ‘Black Lake’ is as explicit as her torment gets, with evocations like “our love was my womb but our bond has broken / and my shield is gone, my protection is taken”. The seeming lack of structure suits Vulnicura well, the songs coming across as non-linear introspections whose musical surroundings are influenced by the author’s feelings at that precise moment, with Arca’s productions shifting and changing to fit themselves around Björk. Paradoxically, for a break-up album, she sounds literally numbed by her own sense of abandonment, able to place herself outside of her own subject matter, as heard in the compelling ‘Lionsong’ and ‘Stone Milker’. It’s a trick Björk has turned before, of course, but rarely as consistently well as on Vulnicura.

While it’s resolutely avant-garde in its presentation, it’s virtually impossible to merely listen to Vulnicura in the background – the elusive time signatures and semi-human, hyper-extended musical constructions demand your full attention. (9/10) (LISTEN)

Utopia (2017)

After the long dark night of the soul comes the dawning of a new day. Following the tumult of Vulnicura, essaying the emotional fall-out of the extinguishing of love, Björk delivered Utopia, a record about finding new romance that she described as her “Tinder album… about that search – and about being in love. Spending time with a person you enjoy is when the dream becomes real.” Teaming up with Arca once again, this time his shapeshifting rhythms and soundscapes radiate with beauty and positivity.

Haunting lead single ‘The Gate’ was a case in point. Here, Bjork’s lyrical style is one of unadorned, disarming simplicity (“If you care for me, care for me / And then I’ll care for you, care for you“) as she unfurls, adapts and dances across Arca’s instrumentals with the patient, soothing heat of poured candle wax, maintaining a ballerina-like grace that expresses outer vulnerability but inner strength. On the intimate ‘Blissing Me’, she tells of the thrill of falling for a new lover, before exposing her anxiety over the uncertainty of the future and the potential for impending heartbreak – what it really means to allow oneself to fall in love again.

At nearly 72 minutes, however, Utopia is by far Björk’s longest album and, at times, it really does feel like it. Arca’s glistening production is far more tranquil than on Vulnicura, but the landscape is far more unchanging than before, and the flute arrangements that encase the songs make each track a little tricky to distinguish from the ones around it as the record progresses. It does become more emotionally resonant with each sitting, however, suitable for listening in times of solitude and reflection. Furthermore, in terms of ambition and execution, Utopia still put the vast majority of 2017’s music to shame. 25 years after she commenced her solo career, and now in her fifties, Björk’s solo output is still as vital and wholesome as it has ever been. May this golden age never end. (8/10) (LISTEN)

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