Bjork – Debut

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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.

B+

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4 responses to “Bjork – Debut

  1. This is a very well-written and interesting take! It’s funny, I have always liked this record, and Bjork in general. I never really noticed that what she does could be grating, and have always considered myself a fan. But as I read along with this I also found myself agreeing with you, so maybe I’m somewhere in the middle on her after all! Haha.

    I thought an interesting part was mentioning the Trinity of other singers. You know, they all have a ‘thing’ that they do too, as does any artist in every genre. Alanis is another one that some love and some hate, just for what she does on her voice. Norah Jones is another – she has a thing that she does that defines her. And look at all the 90s rock singer guys, all doing that ‘whoa yeah’ thing like Eddie Vedder. And so on. Everyone has a ‘thing’ that they do, and if they get noticed enough doing that ‘thing’ to make major label records whilst doing it, good for them. And for as many people who love them doing it, maybe there are just as many who dislike it. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, it just occurs to me that Bjork could definitely be one of those people.

    I mean, with Bjork, I haven’t ever really met anyone who was indifferent about her. It’s either love or dislike. And apparently on a song by song basis… Interesting! Thanks for this. I really appreciate your take, which makes me rethink my own. And that’s what good writing is all about!

    • Thanks for the long comment! I am aware that there are people who love-love-love her. Me, I always thought she a singles artist at best. Her best is Homogenic.

      Regarding voices, you’re right: with Joanna Newsom, there are TONS of people who hate her because of her really shrill voice.

      I scheduled a review of Biophilia for tomorrow, which I hated. Hopefully you didn’t enjoy that one too much!

      • I think Regina Spektor would be another one for that list. There are surely a ton more.

        I did enjoy Biophilia, but don’t worry about me! That’s the best part about this blogging bit – we don’t always agree. I prefer it that way. If we all agreed on everything all the time, it’d be pretty boring!

  2. Pingback: Bjork – Biophilia | Free City Sounds·

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