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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Björk: Debut

BJÖRK: DEBUT (1993)

1) Human Behaviour; 2) Crying; 3) Venus As A Boy; 4) There's More To Life Than This; 5) Like Someone In Love; 6) Big Time Sensuality; 7) One Day; 8) Aeroplane; 9) Come To Me; 10) Violently Happy; 11) The Anchor Song; 12*) Play Dead.

"If you ever get close to a human / And human behaviour / Be ready to get confused". These lines open the properly certified solo career of Björk, honorable daughter of Guðmund, and therein pretty much lies the key to understanding her secret. You see, she may formally present herself to us as the daughter of Guðmund all right, all flesh and blood, but no true human would write lyrics like that — or make that kind of music, or engage in that kind of vocalizing. Debut establishes her very firmly as an ambassador from a distant planet, sent here as either a part of a spy network or a member of an undercover cultural exchange program.

And it is almost hilarious (or creepy) how many different arguments in support of that theory one can find — almost as many, in fact, as it takes to convincingly prove that Paul is dead or that Klaatu were the Beatles, after all. I am not going to bother with specificities, but sometimes it feels as if the sole nature of Debut was educational: the little alien from far away is getting busy, learning and practicing the musical fashions of the early 1990s and adapting them to her (his? its? what do we know of alien gender, anyway?) own little alien musical techniques — or vice versa. And so, while on one hand, "there's definitely no logic to human behavior", from our side, we might not see any apparent logic to the creative decisions of the little alien.

Why, for instance, does ʽHuman Behaviourʼ, which begins in romantically wild African jungle style (something that the late Les Baxter might have approved), see fit to conclude with a jarring, distorted, «evil» electronic solo that is closer to an «industrial» style in nature, something more fit for a Nine Inch Nails or a Ministry? Is it to reinforce one's idea of human behaviour as leading to inescapable demonstrations of evil in the end? Or is it simply a random demonstration of the little alien's preferences for matinee music? It's an odd combination in any case, but it also works, so that the song mixes elements of playfulness and creepiness in a completely unique manner.

A short time after that, ʽVenus As A Boyʼ blows up to smithereens our conventional understan­ding of «sexuality in music» — not that this would look like a particularly great song to make (non-alien) love to: the rhythmic base is suitable, as are the erotic lyrics (sometimes bordering on trashy romance novel clichés — "he's exploring the taste of her arousal"? ooh, gross!), but Björk's untamed passion for dissonant screaming is liable to throwing you off base at any time, so it is probably more prudent to adopt a rational approach and filter the unconventional beauty of the song, together with its half-Eastern, half-Western orchestration, through the mind as... well, as sort of an alternative to conventional beauty. It is a song of love and sex, and it is a song of real passion, not just a show of unusual technique, but one has to get used to that.

If you are looking for some tenderness and sentimentality from the little alien, check out ʽCome To Meʼ, which is how the aliens console and caress their loved ones while at the same time zipping through lonely space, busy string parts and minimalistic lonesome keyboard chords passing by. Or, every once in a while, the little alien might bypass rhythm completely and offer its personal interpretation of a vocal jazz oldie: I'm certain that Bing Crosby would have appre­ciated this take on ʽLike Someone In Loveʼ — eventually — but he'd have to spend some time first coming to terms with this child-like, «stumbling» delivery, ever so discordant with the con­ventionally gorgeous harp playing from jazz professional Corky Hale.

But on the whole, for the moment the little alien is still content enough to lose itself in the happy dance rhythms of the newly emerged European house / trip hop scene, all the rage in London where Björk had relocated to catch up with the latest and trendiest in musical fashion. Mind you, by no means does she enslave herself to this fashion — in fact, ʽThere's More To Life Than Thisʼ, part of which was allegedly recorded in the toilet (!) of a trendy night club, very clearly makes fun of the nightclubbing lifestyle: the wilder the hilariously lo-fi four-on-the-floor beat, the more ran­dom are the lady's requests to her reluctant partner to "sneak out of this party", because "we could go down to the harbour" and "see the sun come up", yeah right. (A question for the street savants out there: why in the world does she pronounce ghetto blaster as jetto blaster? That h does not just stand there for nothing, now does it?).

But elsewhere — ʽCryingʼ, ʽViolently Happyʼ, etc. — the dance beats are taken more seriously, and sometimes they are accompanying dark electronic grooves (ʽViolently Happyʼ) that could have easily come out of the Aphex Twin pocketbook. Are they necessary? Don't they make Debut a bit too derivative and chained to its epoch and surroundings? I'm pretty sure that is what Björk meant herself when she would later reject Debut from the top list of her favorites. It may seem, indeed, that she is relying a bit too much on the musical opinions of others, and not relying fully on her own inner voice. Then again, this is one of those solid compromises between crea­tivity, accessibility, and commercialism that allows for the production of masterpieces without getting carried too far away — in fact, it is still a toss-up for me between Debut and Post as my personal favorite Björk LP. Post would probably win due to higher highs — but there is not a single bad track on Debut, either: each song has something to say, vocally and musically, and we'd be here all day if I started focusing on everything individually.

Since we do not want to be here all day, I'll just say this: Debut is a perfect compromise between «cosmic alien logic» and the human mind, and the perfect way to get into Björk if you are not one of those pier divers into ice water. (If you are, just skip all this commercial crap and head straight for Medulla). And while I cannot say that I always easily «connect» with her emotionally (not having any alien blood and all), this particular thumbs up comes straight from the heart, because the songs, meticulously thought out and calculated as they are, still strive to convey understan­dable, organic feelings, rather than just some sort of abstract pantheistic drive, the first signs of which would not really appear until Homogenic. In other words, she is not only using her head, but also keeping it, which is a good thing to do when you are blessed with one of the most un­usual vocal techniques in the world.

3 comments:

  1. "(A question for the street savants out there: why in the world does she pronounce ghetto blaster as jetto blaster? That h does not just stand there for nothing, now does it?)"

    Maybe English is her second language, and though she speaks it well and with good grammar, she still gets confused with some consonant sounds? -shrug-

    On that note, your English is impeccable. You write it better than most native English speakers I know. What other languages do you speak?

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    1. >Maybe English is her second language, and though she speaks it well and with good grammar, she still gets confused with some consonant sounds? -shrug-

      "Ghetto" is actually an Italian word, and it's a loanword in Icelandic just as much as it is in English (and countless other languages besides, including Russian and Chinese). Regardless, Icelandic uses the same Roman alphabet as Italian and English anyway. She just screwed up; her native language had nothing to do with it.

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    2. "On that note, your English is impeccable. You write it better than most native English speakers I know. "

      That's because ESL speakers learn to write first, speak second. With native speakers it's the other way round.

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