Counterbalance No. 147: Björk's 'Debut'
I could nick a boat and sneak off to this island. I could bring my little ghetto blaster and we could listen to the 147th most acclaimed album of all time. A milestone in Icelandic pop music is this week's Counterbalance.
Klinger: Back in the 1990s, I had a job working in a record store. Really more of a CD store by that time, of course, but I did buy pretty heavily into the myth of the record store employee. Possibly a little obscurantist, certainly a little condescending, painfully aware that the people I was serving were generally more interested in Dave Matthews than I cared to admit. So you'd think I would have been all over the solo works of Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk Guðmundsdóttir, with her accessibly avant-garde sensibilities and her pixilated, pan-musical approach.
Unfortunately, back in the 1990s I was also completely insufferable, and given to certain rockist tendencies that I'm still working through. So I was immediately bothered by anything that sounded like dance music, whatever that means, and I wrote off this album as vaguely annoying and not worth the bother. Now that we've begun this Counterbalance project and are forcing ourselves to sit down and actually listen to the Most Acclaimed Albums of All Time, as compiled by the mathemagician over at the Acclaimed Music website, I get the distinct impression that I may have missed out on something. Mendelsohn, you seem to pay more attention to this sort of thing that I do—is this accurate?
Mendelsohn: If you are a rockist, then no, you didn't miss out on anything. In fact, I would advise you to carry on, believing that if music doesn't have guitars and real drums, it isn't worth the effort. If, however, you want to expand your horizons and spend a little time in the confusing, Technicolor world of Björk, please come with me. Not that you have a choice.
Growing up in the '90s, Björk was a part of my musical landscape due mostly to her music videos on MTV (anything directed by Michel Gondry is worth spending an afternoon with on YouTube—seriously, check them out). By the time the decade had ended I had lived through the release of three Björk albums, all of which spawned crazy music videos and enough radio play to keep her relevant. Her 1997 album Homogenic was even my go-to late night drive album for a couple of months. Don't get me wrong, I didn't watch a lot of MTV or listen all that much Björk growing up, but you have to keep in mind this was all pre-Internet and the Gatekeepers were still very much in charge of what made it into the public's lunch box. So if you listened to any alternative radio at all during that time, chances are you would hear Björk.
As I went off to college, Björk was a de facto on my list of artists to watch simply because I was turning into an obscurest wanker who liked electronic music and weird art-rock acts. Björk fit neatly in with that, plus she liked to work with some interesting people (Matmos, Rahzel, Mike Patton, Tricky, just to name a few).
Going back to Debut, an album I haven't heard in nearly 15 years, I was surprised by how well some of the material had aged and deeply disturbed by how dated the rest of it was. Some of those dances tracks are just a step away from being Deee-Lite.
Klinger: OK, so you're clearly honing in on something I'm not quite on to. While there are a number of tracks on here with that four-to-the-bar beat, I'm having a hard time hearing that level of ultra-camp. What I do hear seems pretty... wait, are you talking about "Crying"? Because now that I've heard that bass line juxtaposed with Deee-Lite in my head I can't unhear it. Dang it, Mendelsohn.
But this just goes to show how limited my knowledge of this stuff is. I'm not sure how you can tell dated-sounding dance music from fresh-as-today's-headlines-sounding dance music. I have been paying enough attention over the course of this project to recognize the trip-hop tendencies throughout this record, which I assume are mostly attributable to Björk's producer and collaborator Nellee Hooper, who worked on that Blue Lines we did a while back. But all of those sounds do take me right back to the 1990s somehow, so maybe I'm more aware than I realize. Yes?
Mendelsohn: You probably said it best when I complained about how dated I found Michael Jackson's Thriller. You said, and I'm paraphrasing, the music isn't dated but merely evocative of a certain period in time. If I had the energy and patience, I could probably go through ever album released in the 1990s and pick out all of the same samples and sound effects that made it into those records thanks to the synthesizers being used at that time. So yes, Debut sounds a bit little like Blue Lines, thanks in large part to Hooper, but also because they used many of the same electronic instruments. I hear a lot of the same sound effects, samples, and drum loops that Björk used in Debut popping up in Nine Inch Nails' music, too, especially The Downward Spiral (188 on the Great List) and Pretty Hate Machine (565). It has nothing to do with influence but more to do with the tools used to create the music.
"Crying", "There's More to Life Than This", and "Big Time Sensuality" are great examples of songs that are evocative of the '90s electronic music sound. "Violently Happy" is also a prime example of the way electronic music was constructed during that decade—the main synth lead, the four-on-the-floor beat, the trancey, tribal undertones are all evocative of the 1990s and show a clear link between a group like Deee-Lite on the pop side of the spectrum and something a little more underground like Leftfield, Underworld, or Orbital.
But the dance music isn't the whole story. This album isn't strictly a dance album nor is it strictly an electronic music album. Mixed in between the big beat tracks and the downtempo are some fairly stripped down ballads. The type of balladry that would make more sense coming from Judy Garland in the 1940s than it does coming from Björk in the 1990s. Yes, I'm talking about "Like Some in Love", but you also have "Venus as a Boy", "The Anchor Song", and "Atlantic".
Klinger: OK, I'm glad you brought those songs up, because (perhaps not surprisingly) those are the parts of the album that I'm most drawn to. I do appreciate the fact that there are a number of—and I know this isn't the preferred nomenclature—"real" instruments like saxophones and such on even Debut's danciest dance tracks. Having already covered Blue Lines and Portishead's Dummy, my ears have already been softened up to listen past the drum machines and synths to the rootsish sounds beneath, sounds that Debut seems to bring even further to the forefront (Or does it? Maybe I'm just more attuned to it than I used to be. Oh how far I've come.).
At any rate, it's on songs like those you mentioned above, especially Björk's cover of the Johnny Burke/James Van Heusen standard "Like Someone in Love" (a song that works so beautifully in a stripped-down form—check out John Coltrane's version as proof), where I find the album's beating heart. Björk's, shall we say, unconventional voice, which may have played a role in my past impatience with her work, is used to striking effect against the harp of Corky Hale, who over the course of her career managed to play with both Liberace and James Brown (although, sadly, not at the same session).
Mendelsohn: The thing that I like the most about Björk is her willingness to use everything at her disposal as an instrument—be it her voice, electronic instruments, or "real" instruments—in order to construct her aural vision. If anything, this album might suffer simply from the standpoint of technological limitations. Debut is evocative of the 1990s simply because that's when it was made and the sounds of time were incorporated into the record—albeit through Björk's own filtered reality.
The high points of the album -- "Human Behavior", "Venus as a Boy", "Like Someone in Love" -- hold a timeless quality that allows these songs to step away from the time in which they were recorded and allow the rest of the album to come with it. Björk has always been a very forward thinker when it came to her music (and fashion, I suppose) and I think it shows through in Debut. It is also why we will see a Björk album popping up on the list every 100 entries or so until we reach 2001's Vespertine at 442.
Klinger: I'll be looking forward to that in many ways. This has all been highly educational for me, Mendelsohn. I've come to gain a better understanding of this music that I once found to be an irritant, and I've also begun the arduous process of dealing with my own youthful insufferability. (Opinions differ as to my middle-aged insufferability.) But when you're talking about an artist as singular, and occasionally as surreal, as Björk, I reckon a little added introspection is bound to happen.