Part 1 of the January Review
My first foray into Bjork’s catalogue (beyond seeing ‘Big Time Sensuality’, ‘Human Behaviour’ and the like on MTV while growing up) was Medulla. I instantly adored this record, recognising it’s stunning innovation in stretching the boundaries of what could be composed with the human voice, and as is customary a lot of the time when I have an emotional attachment to a particular record by an artist, not wanting to spoil the magic, it took me a while to delve deeper (I still to this date haven’t heard a full-length album by Tricky other than Maxinquaye).
Eventually I picked up Volta and then Vespertine. Again, I was struck equally by both the maturity of the songwriting and the breathtaking electronic arrangements, and couldn’t deny the talent of a woman rightly revered and deservedly canonised as she was by then. But, to my shame, Vespertine in particular left me a little uncomfortable. Its subject matter, however enlightening and tenderly representative it is of female desire, to the ears of an early twenties male out for whatever he could get, it was slightly unsettling in its unabashed lyrical boldness in putting all that across.
Nevertheless, I was so taken with the technical brilliance of the record that I was compelled enough to dig out Homogenic, inherited from a break up some years prior, my impression being that it was something of a junior partner in Bjork’s oeuvre (something like the ‘Lost Highway’ to the ‘Mulholland Drive’ of Medulla), however this ended up fostering an intense attachment, and to this day I listen to ‘Joga’ and ‘Bachelorette’ with a fondness far beyond the nostalgia attached to them from the MTV days.
So, upon hearing Debut for the first time in 2012 (yes, that’s nineteen years after its release during those wistful days of watching Bjork jump around on the telly after school), I desperately wanted it to live up to the hype that surrounded it as I had grown up. My impressions of her since then being characterised by the crystalline artistry and poetic sophistication of Medulla and Vespertine, the aching beauty of Homogenic, I was also acutely aware of the potential for the ultimate canonisation of her work to be hideously underwhelming, as engaged as I had been for years by her subsequent output. Upon hearing the now-abused house piano and four-to-the-floor of ‘Crying’ after the obligatory nostalgia trip of the opening track, I was preparing myself for disappointment.
By the time I got to ‘There’s More to Life Than This’, though, my outlook had gone full circle. Utilising (more or less) the same beat, but with some ingenious sound design dropped in here and there, the track delicately espouses a tiredness with the lack of imagination typical to party culture that you’d imagine would be the wont of a thirtysomething former raver, but by using the well-worn musical template described above, somehow also tacitly asserts the life-affirming capability of the same practice for those in the infancy of adulthood.
Now, so much has been written about this album that it would be fatuous of me to give a track-by-track rundown. Coming to it as I have by means of severe retrospect, having been amazed and rebuffed in equal measure by Vespertine at a time when I lacked the maturity to appreciate it’s themes, and now approaching the big 3-0 where stock-taking in life takes up much of my thoughts and activities, I’m aware that I’m bringing a lot of my own experiences into the archaeology project. But hearing the simple, twinkling idealism that flows through Debut, in such contrast but such familiarity with her later material, I can’t help but surmise that there’s more going on here than youthful exuberance, and not because I’m longing for my own days of less responsibility.
It’s precisely because she’s clever enough to situate playful, optimistic tokens – together with some soft-handed, bashful commentary – in a dance-oriented sound palette that gives Debut its identity. The simplicity of most of the words on the album seem appropriate given the hook template of dance music, and successfully translates the vignette-cum-brand-slogan style of exactly that into a form of songwriting. She is making the album at a time when rave is very much in the public consciousness, but takes advantage of the home listening context that was developing around it upon its release. The lyrical themes are plainly more faithful and passionate than the lust-drenched divas sampled on 12”s of the time, and indeed recall a kind of belief in youth and hope similar to the whimsy of Syd Barrett or Kevin Ayers, but harbouring no bigger sense of purpose than enjoying life in a heartfelt and intimate way. Such a theme outlasts any context it is written in.
Because of this, Vespertine now seems like the blossoming of an outlook on life that was in bud for her upon leaving the Sugar Cubes. Her later poetry becomes more illuminating with the knowledge that her self-awareness has been present all along, albeit somewhat mixed-up by interactions with others while being fairly inexperienced, something that most people can relate to when looking back at more youthful times.
The conscious, unshackled Bjork of Vespertine also pervades the effervescent, mostly fun-oriented Debut, only the object of her attention is engagement with anyone and everyone rather than a specific individual. The confusion that she speaks of in ‘Human Behaviour’ doesn’t appear to be directed at any point to herself (at least until ‘Play Dead’ at the end, which is kind of tacked-on as an extra single anyway, but does bookend the album’s thematic nicely) and shows a degree of individual completeness and maturity I obviously couldn’t grasp at that age, when I was failing to decode Vespertine. It’s admirable that she has such a strong sense of who she is and what she sees life is for, and I’m inclined to hear the body of her work as a grand narrative, where the seeds of self-realisation are observable right from the start, and come to fruition at Vespertine’s junction, where she begins to cultivate an environment around her that is consistent with her now fully rounded conception of herself and her purpose.
But I probably wouldn’t have grasped even that much now if I’d have bought Debut as a 9-year-old when it won NME’s album of the year, so I’m kind of glad I did this the long way round.