BJÖRK: POST (1995)
1) Army Of Me; 2) Hyper-Ballad; 3) The Modern Things; 4) It's Oh So Quiet; 5) Enjoy; 6) You've Been Flirting Again; 7) Isobel; 8) Possibly Maybe; 9) I Miss You; 10) Cover Me; 11) Headphones.
Listening to ʽArmy Of Meʼ, I was once again reminded why I generally feel cold about most instrumental electronic music, but have nothing in general against the use of electronics in an «art pop» song, context, among other things. Electronic melodies / loops / samples on their own have this «inorganic» feel; they can paint a vivid, realistic picture (usually having something to do with robots, astral space, or nanotechnologies), but they cannot serve as a proper reflection of the human soul (when was the last time you actually cried to something by Aphex Twin?). However, when electronic elements are combined with human soul elements, the result can be staggeringly great — like a confrontation between the organic and the inorganic, where it does not even matter who wins (based on the outcome, the piece can qualify as comedy or tragedy).
ʽArmy Of Meʼ samples John Bonham (the drum part from ʽWhen The Levee Breaksʼ), throws in an almost industrial bassline, and adds swooshing synth effects — but this cold, heavy, sensually unpleasant atmosphere would just be atmosphere if not for the vocals, which seem to be fighting against the onslaught. The question is — is the music supportive of the threatening "and if you complain once more, you'll meet an army of me" chorus, or is the chorus fighting the music? I like to fondle the latter choice — that the brave little Björk is arrogantly bluffing against unsurmountable odds, singing as she is against that bassline than in tune with it. The electronic arrangement can then be regarded as a battleground: with the aid of Nellee Hooper, Björk meticulously puts up these impressive, but lifeless paysages, and then hops across from one end of the frame to another, not to «breathe life into them», but to grace them with her own life, so to say. This song, as well as several others on this album, represents one of the finest syntheses of electronic music and «living spirit» I've ever heard.
If I had to choose just one album to represent «the true Björk», Post would be it. It is all over the place, it is in constant search of itself, it is relatively accessible, and, most importantly, it does not show an artist losing her head over the unexpected immensity of her talent. In fact, no better description can there be of the big difference between Post and Homogenic than simply a request to compare the album covers. On Post, you see a human exploring a psychedelic world. On Homogenic, you see a psychedelic pseudo-human exploring one of its artificial creations (a faux-Japanese environment). Both albums are fabulous, but when it comes to really loving my Björk, I prefer a human avatar, not a distant idol.
For one thing, that human avatar gets us such delights as ʽIt's Oh So Quietʼ (a cover of an old Horst Winter tune, best known for the 1951 Betty Hutton version) — goofy theatrical jazz with an immense joy-punch packed in; or the quiet chamber music piece ʽYou've Been Flirting Againʼ, which shows how a cello can be a girl's best friend in a psychologically difficult situation; or ʽPossibly Maybeʼ, a song that I'm sure Billie Holiday would love to have covered, given the right circumstances — such frail, elegant melancholy, perfectly integrated with the icy electronic keyboards. They are all weird, eccentric compositions, but they are also all deeply human and very easy to relate to, though not all at once (due to the great mood diversity).
Even when she does drift off into fantasy land, like on the «mythological» ʽIsobelʼ, a portrait of a mysterious being stuck somewhere between Sleeping Beauty and Shelob, the required effect is achieved with a catchy chorus, a lush orchestral arrangement, and vocal harmonies with just a tiny trace of dissonance. Plus, there is always this «childish» approach, so that when she sings ʽmy name Isobel, married to myselfʼ, you get a clear vision of an imaginative kid living out a complex fantasy, dancing it all the way to school to those merry trip-hop rhythms.
She can be cold and distant, of course, as early as on ʽEnjoyʼ, a song that rocks heavier and breathier than anything else here, while Björk's vocal inflections and the occasional brass notes make the atmosphere comparable to Portishead's second album. But it is not really typical of this particular album. Much more typical is something like ʽHyper-Balladʼ, whose lyrics pack all the important ingredients: "living on a mountain" (where else?), "little things like car-parts, bottles and cutlery" (no great artist can get by without paying homage to the little things), "I go through all this before you wake up" (because there's definitely gotta be a me and there's definitely gotta be a you), and "I imagine what my body would sound like slamming against those rocks" (because nothing helps as much to get beyond your cumbersome ego as hypothetically contemplating suicide every once in a while). All of this delivered in the usual childlike voice and set in an electronic soup that eventually goes techno-beat-ish on us (without a particularly good reason, I'd say, but somebody must have thought it added «development»).
Anyway, the really big difference between Debut and Post is that the latter sheds some of the former's kiddie joy and adds some morose maturity, but it is a kind of depth that does not come (yet) at the expense of accessibility. Words like «depressed» or «somber» do not do justice to this music — Björk is still quite a party animal, it's just that she's got her own party, to which we are all invited only if we learn and accept her wacko rules. An «intraverted extravert», or something like that. When she sings "My headphones / They saved my life / Your tape / It lulled me to sleep", it looks like she really means it — basically, life begins when you put on your headphones, not blast it all out across the street. Or maybe that's just what I'd like to think. Regardless, a big thumbs up to this colorful, meaningful, deeply creative and unusual musical world. And, most importantly, so personal and human — I'd love to love, say, the Animal Collective for their electronic wizardry with the same strength, but ultimately they just produce these heartless abstractions, so, as Ray Davies said, "you keep all your smart modern freak folks, give me Björk Guðmundsdóttir". Or something to that end, anyway.