Someone’s probably going to unleash an army of hunters on me after this but I’ve never really cared for Bjork. She sounds really self-pleased with her – often unnecessary – vocal eccentricities that, in comparison with other two female vocal eccentrics that form the Holy Trinity that everyone has fallen head over heels for (Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom), results in an icy detachment that makes it seem like she’s merely observing the world/the relationship instead of taking part in them. And to be clear, I’m not just referring to her lyrics here (which are broken, and which Robert Christgau puts way too much stock in in his few articulated reviews of Bjork albums; his worst reviews, probably); I’m referring to her melodies or more precisely, lack thereof. And you know what? Her cuteness screams fake to me instead of fey.
And I don’t think even Bjork’s most ardent defenders would disagree that Debut‘s charms mostly reside in its first stretch (Wowee! Just like Post!); that there’s a dropoff after “Venus as a Boy” (Wowee! A dropoff after the third song!) that the album regains at “One Day” before dropping off again in its final two songs. To state that she’ll go on to better things from here is to state the obvious.
The negatives: “There’s More To Life Than This” (great title, given the subject matter) is a song that was recorded in toilets of a club (cool, I guess?) that’s just a generic house song whose only ungeneric quality (other than Bjork’s aforementioned vocals) is when the beat stops and it sounds like you’re smoking outside the club with Bjork, who won’t stop singing. “Like Someone in Love” is a harp-accompanied dirge (again, no melody, no emotion) and then we get a fucking rewrite of “Crying” with some really dinky horns in “Big Time Sensuality” (am I the only one that noticed that it’s the same rhythm, just mixed lower?). On the other side of things: more house, dated this time (“Violently Happy”) and closer “Anchor Song,” that desperately needed something to anchor the nauseating start-stop of the horns.
When this album celebrated its twentieth-year anniversary, The Guardian‘s Michael Cragg and Stereogum‘s Tom Breihan both wrote really nice articles about Debut. Both writers argue that Debut contextualizes house music into pop; methinks that simply putting a pop singer on top of house beats isn’t really all that of an achievement (the aforementioned “There’s More to Life Than This”; “Violently Happy”).
Both articles also mention Rolling Stone‘s Tom Graves’ review of the album (2/5 stars), which complained that “Rather than sticking to rock & roll, Debut is painfully eclectic”, a line that sublimates right past the “oxymoron” stage to full-blown nonsense; it’s a review where as much as thought was given as Robert Christgau’s review (as in, none at all) that reads like a parody of Rolling Stone. That this album is overrated isn’t because it’s “painfully eclectic”; if anything, the album’s saving grave is because of its eclecticness: “One Day” (well-sung: “I can FEEL it”) and “Aeroplane” are the only two examples where I see where Cragg and Breihan are coming from; like hearing Bjork sing and incorporate jazz into Orb songs. Also: “Come To Me” is another goody in the album’s second half: wonderfully orchestrated, with the slinky, atmospheric piano line.
(The way Tom Breihan works Tom Graves’ closing sentiment into his own article was a great detail.)
And the first three songs are great. The way she tortures her voice on “Human Behaviour” grates, but the way she runs through syllables (“There’s definitely-definitely-definitely…”) adds to the urgency of the track created by the creepy synth tones, deep drums and layered rhythms. “Crying” remains the album’s highlight since I first heard it: a more direct rhythm that’s punctuated by a vibraphone; Bjork’s fist-curled cries are the album’s most emotionally sung bits (we’ll hear something similar on Post‘s “Enjoy”). And “Venus as a Boy” is lovely: lifting strings and bubbling synths over a persistent and odd drum sound.
Bottom line: this has a killer-to-filler ratio equal to or worse than that of a golden period Animal Collective record.