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Bjork: A Post-Pop Epiphany

2008-05-25 17:38
I don’t remember the precise moment I first became aware of her. But I am almost certain that it was on a visual level, likely seeing her bounce around on the back of a flat bed truck in her epic “Big Time Sensuality” video in the early 90s, with the Manhattan skyline unfolding behind her.

If the energetic beats and coy vocal delivery didn’t hook you in, her curious looks certainly did. And, she was from Iceland. No-one knew any pop stars from Iceland back then.

Musically, Bjork has always been impossible to categorise. She is able to meld a maelstrom of genres – from trip-hop to folk to techno to ambient jazz and everything in between – to dizzying effect, while anchoring the beautiful mess she has created with her other-worldly voice.

Over her long and illustrious career, Bjork has released many great albums. Her debut solo album, released in 1993 and named, er, Debut, was unlike anything else in the pop charts at the time, and alerted the world to a fresh new voice.

Every album since then has been a revelation, but it’s her second solo album, Post, released in 1995, that I find myself returning to time and again. It featured the production work of trip hop pioneers Nellee Hooper and Tricky.

From the opening smack-punch of “Army of Me” she ventures on this singular trip through all the beautiful and appalling parts of human nature. It’s a dark and dramatic opening that is perfectly counter-pointed by the track that follows it, “Hyper-Ballad” (such a perfect title!) still one of my favourite songs. It tells the dizzying story of a woman in love, throwing car parts into the ocean and imagining slamming herself against rocks in utter joy.
It is a stunning and incomprehensibly elegant song.

The techno sound heard on her previous album is also evident in tracks such as “The Modern Things” and “Enjoy”, but it all sounds so organic and primal. “It’s Oh So Quiet” proved to be her crossover hit, and it’s a cover.

The accompanying video, directed by Spike Jonze, played out like a huge Broadway production and was hard to avoid at the time. There was a playful and innocent element to the song and video that was intriguing and compelling, whether you “got” her or not.

On “Isobel” the drama is intensified, melding lush strings, with electronica and jungle beats, in a song that fears for the fate of the world as seen through the eyes of a solitary girl. The natural world versus technology is a continuing theme throughout the album, in both the lyrics and the confounding clash of Bjork’s choirgirl-feral-soulful voice against an electronic backdrop.

Many many listens are required before any sense can be made of her songs, and I always appreciate an artist that makes me work a bit before I discover the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Bjork certainly has that effect, and even more so since taking a more experimental route with more recent releases such as her all-vocals and vocal sampled album Medúlla (2004).

But, 15 years into her career, there still is no-one who sounds like her. Probably because no one else would even dare try.

- Shaheema Barodien

Listening to Bjork is a lot like what schizophrenia probably feels like. Her music is chilling, discordant, joyful, fearless, and more than a little bit loopy.


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