A quarter century later, Björk’s genre-defying solo debut defies its original critics to become a top 90s classic with which the world is only just catching up
Debut, Björk’s first solo album as an adult, was released on July 5, 1993. About two months later, Rolling Stone, which still had a measure of critical gravitas back then, published a two-star (“fair”) review by Tom Graves that can charitably be called misinformed. Here’s a look back at this seismic album through the lens of annotations to that review.
“Months before the Sugar Cubes’ first album debuted in the United States, a heavy buzz began to circulate about the group’s lead singer, Björk.”
Life’s Too Good by The Sugarcubes (one word, not two) came out in spring of 1988. At the time, Björk Gudmansdottir was 24 and over a decade into her career, which started with a self-titled album released when she was 11. The Sugarcubes ran from 1986 to 1992 and somewhere in there she also found time to make Gling-Glo with a jazz trio. As far as Björk being the “lead singer” of The Sugarcubes, that “rockist” term ignores the fact that a distinctive feature of the band (for better or worse) was the combination of her vocals with those of Einar Orn, an obnoxious provocateur who also played pocket trumpet. In fact, while The New York Times review of The Sugarcubes first concert in New York called Björk “wonderful,” critic Peter Watrous also pointed out that “By himself, Mr. Orn would be obvious; by herself, Ms. Gudmundsdottir would be one more talented singer fronting a rock band. Alone, each would have seemed anachronistic; together they’ve made something fresh.”
It is true that Orn’s role receded a bit by the time the The Sugarcubes broke up and that there was little doubt who was going to be breakout star of the group.
“It was weird enough that the group hailed from Iceland….”
Frankly, it’s still a little uncommon (“weird” is a little pejorative, doncha think) for rock bands to come out of Iceland, with Sigur Rós and Of Monsters And Men gaining the most traction globally. But there has been an explosion of excellent contemporary classical music led by figures like Anna Thorvaldsdottir and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, and many others, along with groups like Nordic Affect and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
“…but Björk’s eerie yelps, shrieks, girlish whispers and leather-lunged vocal acrobatics transported the band into another head space entirely. The word invariably used to describe Björk’s synapse-bending vocals was feral. Songs such as “Motorcrash” and “Delicious Demon” were supercharged tours de force.”
Based on a Google search, saying her vocals were “invariably” called “feral” is a little strong, but Graves’s description of Björk’s sounds is pretty accurate as far as it goes. However, he fails to mention how all those sounds add up somehow into emotionally coherent performances. Then he praises two songs from the first Sugarcubes album, picked seemingly at random and presumably to show he’s so hip he listened to more than their biggest hit, “Birthday.”
“In concert, however, two things became abundantly clear about the Sugar Cubes: First, Björk could deliver the goods…”
This is absolutely correct. When I saw Björk on the tour for Post, she was incredible, delivering her vocals with technical brilliance and displaying more than a bit of show-biz flair. She led a large band with utter command and kept the audience in the palm of her hand from the moment she skipped on stage in a spangled silver dress to the end of the night. It was one of my favorite concerts of the decade.
“…second, the Sugar Cubes’ stage act seemed dangerously close to bad performance art.”
I heard something similar to this from friends of mine who saw The Sugarcubes and much of the fault seemed to lie with Orn’s annoying antics. In another concert review near the end of their career, Karen Schoemer notes “Mr. Orn repeatedly lifted up his shirt and showed his stomach. Perhaps strangeness comes so naturally to the Sugarcubes, it’s become mundane.”
“On two subsequent albums, the Cubes abandoned their blunt rock attack for a trendy Euro-dance sound. Björk’s vocals were lost amid the electronic clatter. People wondered if it wasn’t time for Björk to light out on her own.”
Did the “Cubes” ever have a “blunt rock attack”? This is one of those moments in a review when you realize the author is using revisionist history to emphasize the phony points he’s planning to make later. While it may be so that The Sugarcubes got more into dance music, releasing a fairly lousy collection of remixes in 1992, they also didn’t change all that much over their three albums, relying mostly on the colorful, heavily chorused guitar of Þór Eldon and the vaguely “tribal” drumming of Sigtryggur Baldursson to define the parameters of their sound.
It should be noted that Graves has now spent fully half of a four-paragraph review running down Björk’s time with The Sugarcubes, which had ended just a year before, rather than addressing the matter at hand. Procrastinate much, dude?
“She did, and Debut is the utterly disappointing result. Rather than sticking to rock & roll, Debut is painfully eclectic.”
Again, what is this “rock & roll” of which you speak, Graves? It’s not as if Björk went from doing Janis Joplin covers to making avant-garde electronica. And why is her eclecticism “painful”? Ever since Sgt. Pepper’s (and Scary Monsters, for that matter), covering a lot of stylistic ground on an album has often been seen as a sign of mastery.
“On “Come to Me” and “Venus as a Boy” Björk adds not just a string section but an entire orchestra from India. It’s more intrusive than galvanizing.”
It’s really just an Indian string section, and on both songs the arrangements were by Talvin Singh, a London-born tabla master who combines electronic rhythms and Indian classical music to captivating effect. Singh made his own solo debut in 1998, with the terrific album OK, which went on to win the coveted Mercury Prize. Rather than “intrusive,” Björk’s interest in Bollywood was at least five years ahead of most people outside of India and it was quite a coup to have Singh involved in the project. Singh’s work lends an epic feel to “Venus As A Boy” and enough aching sensuality to “Come To Me” that it’s almost embarrassing to listen to in public. Seductions like that usually take place in the dark…
“Likewise, on the jazz standard “Like Someone in Love,” Björk is accompanied by a harp — not the kind Little Walter played.”
This sentence makes me nearly enraged. Why the hell would blues harmonica be a good choice for this album? No, this was not a missed opportunity for a guest spot by John Popper of the wretched Blues Traveler! This was jazz harp, like that played by the great Dorothy Ashby on Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” from his 1976 classic Songs In Key Of Life. Only here, the harp was played by Corky Hale (credited as “Corki”), who had pioneered jazz harp with her delightful debut in 1957, years even before Ashby. Again, a coup to have Hale involved, as well as a deeply musical choice. It should also be said that the airiness of Like Someone In Love, besides showing off Björk’s stunningly original jazz chops, is the perfect leavener to come between two club-hopping burners, “There’s More To Life Than This” and “Big Time Sensuality.” The first of those also has an amazing bit of sonic theater, which goes unmentioned by Graves. The subtitle – Recorded Live In The Milk Bar Toilets – comes to life when you hear a door close and the sound becomes muffled for a few seconds, before springing back to full throttle. It brings the club experience home in a way not heard before or since.
“Only on the opening track, “Human Behavior,” do we get a glimmer of what the fuss was all about.”
Rather than being a “glimmer,” “Human Behavior” was a perfectly constructed dance-pop song, exactly the undeniable single Björk needed to kick off her solo career properly. From the sly, timpani-driven rhythm to the modulations in the melody, even people who didn’t go on to be super-fans likely found it addictive from first listen. The whimsical video, which began a long collaboration with director Michel Gondry, effectively showed that Björk’s adventurous sensibility also extended beyond music and earned six nominations at the 1994 MTV VMA’s. Even Rolling Stone put it on the list of 100 greatest music videos!
“Producer Nellee Hooper (Sinead O’Connor, Soul II Soul) has sabotaged a ferociously iconoclastic talent with a phalanx of cheap electronic gimmickry.”
This is nearly a libelous statement. By 1993, Nellee Hooper had established himself as one of the most innovative and influential producers in the world. Even before creating Soul II Soul’s massively popular Club Classics Vol. One, Hooper injected much of his own DNA into the Bristol sound (trip hop), which took over the 90’s with albums like Dummy by Portishead and Protection by Massive Attack. The latter was also produced by Hooper and has become an audio reference standard almost on par with Steely Dan’s Aja. If you want to hear how deep Hooper’s roots go, check out the astonishing mixtape Wild Bunch vs. Soul II Soul New Year’s Eve 1987 – it still works to get the party started.
Rather than “cheap electronic gimmickry,” Hooper was known for well-balanced productions that expertly blended live instruments with keyboards and drum programming. One of his avatars was Isaac Hayes and Hooper often tried to emulate his orchestral soul stylings, but with a crisp attack that was thoroughly contemporary. Much of the stuff from his peak era still sounds great, funky as heck, and with none of the tinny foibles of contemporaneous productions. No surprise that after delivering stellar work for not only Björk and O’Connor, but also Neneh Cherry, Tracy Chapman and others, that Madonna tapped Hooper to co-write and produce the title track for her Bedtime Stories album.
This was no “sabotage.” Not only do Hooper’s production skills keep Björk grounded, he also co-wrote almost half the album, tightening up the pop accessibility of the song structures while still letting her freaky flag fly. It was in many ways a perfect collaboration, one they continued on the even greater heights of Post, 1995’s earth-shaking follow-up to Debut.
“Björk’s singular skills cry out for genuine band chemistry, and instead she gets Hooper’s Euro art-school schlock — and we do, too.”
“Genuine band chemistry” – there’s another rockist concept. Björk and Hooper were on the cutting edge, at the dawn of an era where producers and elaborate studio constructions could drive the musical conversation just as much as bands. Think of Amy Winehouse working with Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson, or even Adele working with Greg Kurstin – no “band chemistry” necessary for world domination.
It’s sad that Graves saw dance music as such an anathema (“schlock”) that he doesn’t even mention slamming tracks like “Violently Happy” or “Big Time Sensuality,” which ruled the clubs for years thanks to remixes and extended versions. Fortunately, the album was better received elsewhere, for example getting 4/5 from Q Magazine and 9/10 from NME, who also made it their Number One album of 1993. It is now widely viewed as one of the best albums of the 90’s and seen as a major influence on from both sides of the avant/pop spectrum, from Grimes to Lady Gaga.
The last track, “Anchor Song,” also gets no love from Graves. Produced solely by Björk and featuring a brass arrangement by jazz maven Oliver Lake that’s full of odd harmonies, “Anchor Song” is a beautiful little art song about diving into the ocean and dropping anchor, finding home. In the dance clubs of London and the studios of Bristol, Björk had found a new home for herself outside of Iceland, a home that would sustain her in a critical phase of her career and fuel her meteoric trajectory for years to come.