My first impression of Bjork came from an impression. I saw Kristin Wiig’s giggly, manic-autistic-pixie-girl version of her on “SNL” and gave up on listening to her without even trying. The snippets I did end up hearing made me think she was at once both way too self-serious — with her multidisciplinary MoMA shows and glacial string arrangements — and helplessly silly.
That all changed when my friend Jenn posted The Sugarcubes’ “Birthday” on Facebook a few weeks ago. I didn’t recognize the artist, but I knew it had a fierceness and an airy euphoria; I liked its soaring chorus and the tense synths peeking out around the edges. When I found out that it was Bjork’s first band, I realized my conception of her might be off.
So I waded into Bjork’s albums, starting from that Sugarcubes album, moving through the frenetic Post and the languid Vespertine. Fascination turned into obsession and back into frustration: how the effff did I miss this for all this time? Why is Bjork treated more like an oddity than a visionary? I exchanged furious text conversations with friends who were already Bjorkoisseurs (Jacob Sunshine, Austin Siegemund Broka, and Simon de Carvalho). Those thoughts and conversations turned into this guide. Put on your most elegant swan dress and come along for the ride.
Snap Rating: 4 stars
ARC: First of all, the track sequencing is bonkers. To include a slinky harp reading of the standard “Like Someone in Love” alone is risky. To put it between two frisky Euroclub boppers is schizophrenic. It works, though, because of the her canny ability to slip between moods. In “There’s More To Life Than This” she literally slinks around different rooms in a nightclub, playing the role of big tent performer and backroom seducer; “Like Someone in Love” takes on an urgency that I literally never hear in standards. (Bite me, Cecile McLorin Salvant stans.)
There’s no ambiguity about her naming it Debut — this is a probing mixtape, a set of explorations. It’s a young woman saying, “hey I really like this thing! Oh, and I love this thing too!” So there’s big band brass and Madonna-style bangers and terse saxophones and creeping trip hop keyboards. But what Debut lacks in cohesion it makes up for in euphoria and wide-eyed discovery.
Snap Rating: 4 ½ stars
Austin Siegemund-Broka: Artists often produce great work at a crossroads of commercial constraint and creative restlessness—the Clash’s London Calling, Weezer’s debut, even the Beatles’ Revolver come to mind. This is Bjork’s record characterized by that compelling tension. It is both concession and confrontation, a promise to beat 90s radio at its own game and to change it.
On the one hand, there’s a unique thrill to hearing Bjork harness her energy within the confines of rock- and pop-radio writing, scoring points in two games. “Army of Me” is the primary example, the kind of music you kept wishing the Bronze bands in Buffy the Vampire Slayer would play, but they never quite got there. There’s a cinematic flair to the whole record, really, though not the John Williams kind—“Enjoy” would fit right into Trainspotting, while Moby would drop beats reminiscent of “Isobel” under Bond and Bourne. On the other hand, everything iconically Bjork is there. “It’s Oh So Quiet” bursts into big-band swing, a choice brazen bordering on disrespectful. Latin rhythms, hushed whispers, and orchestral strings find their place within the album’s architecture.
This is Post, which is an endlessly intriguing title for only the second record in a long career. Post-what? Post-grunge, post-electronic, post-rock, post-genre—perhaps even post-itself. I wonder if it’s not Bjork promising a future she was only beginning to invent.
ARC: I love this one. It feels era-appropriate to dole out superlatives a la Friends episodes, so here we go. “Post” is:
-The One With the Best Album Art Ever
-The One Where Bjork Makes Me Fight Someone: *listens to Army of Me once* Come at me you coward I’ll smash your fucking bass over your head
-The One Where She Realizes How Huge Her Voice Is: Her zero-to-hundred on “Oh It’s So Quiet” is staggering.
-The One That Set the Template For Pop Stars For the Next 20 Years: In the year 2018, Post sounds more like Pre. You can hear the genesis of the throaty bombast of Sia, the coy dancefloor yearning of Robyn, the sly verbosity of Lorde.
-The One With Her First Truly Great Song: There are some certified #tunes on Debut. But none of them come close to “Hyper-Ballad,” a slow-moving masterpiece that explodes and recedes in hypnotic bursts; it’s mesmerizingly produced and lyrically devastating. I could listen to her pronounce “car parts, bottles and cutlery” on loop for hours.
Snap Rating: 3 Stars
ARC: I know this is supposed to be the best one but I find it kind of impenetrable. I find the arrangements very distant, and the melodies uncontoured; I can’t find its sense of humor or vulnerability. What am I supposed to be listening for here?
Simon de Carvalho: You’re right that there’s not much in the way of humor or irony here: Homogenic is brutally earnest, disarmingly sincere. I found this forthrightness – its raw ambition – to be an easy way in. “State of emergency is where I want to be,” she declares on “Joga,” and she makes it so, conjuring 43 minutes of glorious emotional extremes, sirens blaring, house on fire. The album’s singular muchness has the effect of ripping it out of spacetime, making it sound both quintessentially 1997 and like it might have been released in 2037 and sent back in a time machine to bless us with its futurewisdom. I sort of think of Homogenic as Björk’s Yeezus: you either hate it or love it, but loving it is a religious experience. And, like Yeezus, listening to Homogenic is as rewarding as it is exhausting.
“I’m so bored of cowards,” she screams at the end of “5 Years.” She’s talking about the ones “that say they want / then they can’t handle.” She’s talking about you, Andrew. Cowards need not apply.
Snap Rating: 4 ½ Stars
ARC: How many albums are sexier than Vespertine? Voodoo, yes. Let’s Stay Together, maybe? It’s a short list.
But Vespertine’s sexiness doesn’t come from lust, per se. There are moments of abject horniness — as when she shrieks, “he makes me want to haaaaaand myself ahhhh ahhhhh ohhver!” But the album is moreso breathless via its serenity, security, and intimacy. Every one of her soaring melodic runs is charged with bliss and complete confidence. This peak vocal performance is bolstered by gorgeous, tactile production, somehow both frigid and scorching; the synthesizer and harp work splits the difference between Metro Boomin and “The Nutcracker.”
Bjork’s longing goes far beyond the physical and into the spiritual and metaphysical realms. If “Army” is my new fight song, “Undo” will, going forward, be my pill for sedation. Its refrain, “it’s not meant to be a strife / It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill” is honestly the greatest mantra I’ve ever heard.
And “Cocoon.” Oh, man. Its sublime beat flickers like a candle; it shares a mood with Radiohead’s song “Kid A,” but finds bliss, rather than despair, in a newly mechanized world.
In Vespertine, Bjork explores the quiet corners of the universe and uncovers tiny worlds within worlds. Objects animate. Bjork looks into a coffee mug and sees the grounds whizzing around, talking out of the corners of their mouths, particles diffracting into shards of dazzling light and color. And yet its all so quiet and quotidian, crumbs of the sublime scattered across the everyday.
Gone are the reverb-drenched landscapes of Post and Homogenic. Vespertine replaces the glacial airiness of these records with something much flatter and low-fidelity. I recently listened to Vespertine on my iPhone speakers and certain textures popped out more: the crackles and bleeps coming to the foreground and the harps and strings receding. It’s an album that uncovers new wrinkles with each listen, the materiality of the listening apparatus acting in symbiosis with the tiny material ecologies under the digital surface.
The instability and ambiguity of sound sources is one of the things that makes the production so thoroughly entrancing on this record. At the end of “Undo”, a pretty acoustic guitar figure splinters into fractals of light until it’s nothing but a glitchy echo. On “Frosti,” a Gamelan orchestra is melted down to toy-box size, with all the dynamism and trance-like qualities of the orchestra transposed to trebly plinks. These icy touches and caresses spread from one synapse to the rest of the body.
The beats are composed of found sounds: vinyl crackles, cards shuffling, ice cracking. And Bjork has no desire to impose these unassuming percussive plinks onto a grid. Sometimes the loops seep over the bar line, creating a bizarre hemiolic quality that only begins to make sense once a unitary pulse is established. On “Heirloom” a metronomic drum beat slowly blurs until you have three rabid and mercenary trap drummers, battling each each other on the back of adjacent pickup trucks moving across a wind-swept apocalyptic landscape. On “Hidden Place”, digital distortion is shaped into something warm and comforting: a blanket of warm white noise.
No longer hiding behind reverb, Bjork’s voice has acquired new emotional expressivity. She explores the sharp edges of each vowel, letting her “e’s” ricochet outwards into eternity and her “u’s” grow roots into the ground. She floats over the beat effortlessly like Billie Holiday, wringing meaning, lugubriousness, and sex out of each word. Dig the vocal performance on “Cocoon,” taking in the drama of each slow exhalation and languorous glide. It couldn’t get any closer to the very materiality, the core of the human body. But Bjork’s voice is also marked by the same instability that marks the production. Just as you’re soaking in that breath, there’s a millisecond gap that cuts across the grain of the note; you’re left with nothing but cold digital silence.
What does this focus on micro-processes and material animacy have to do with love? After all this is Bjork’s “intimate” album, a sexy and almost clandestine statement that describes her experience of falling in love with her future husband Mathew Barney. For me it has something to do with finding ecstasy in the gestural. Whether it’s the small caress from a water glass, a few non-voiced utterances between humans or the lingering taste of salt on the tongue: the tendrils of sensory experience take on drastic meaning within the loaded semiotic field of love.
Snap Rating: 4 Stars
ARC: Medulla, an almost entirely vocal project, makes me want to go up to every college a capella group in the country and shake them by their collars. Stop pop and locking, you shameless idiots! The human voice is limitless in its versatility but somehow you all sound the fucking same!!!
This is definitely a deep cut album – it’s a passion project, built specifically inside of a peculiar framework. But creating strict confines can lead to liberation, and Bjork sounds supercharged in this boundless exploration of the human voice. “Where is the Line,” a standout, folds beatboxing into medieval choral pads into whistling into her R&B melismatic runs; it somehow makes sense. She plumbs the farthest reaches of the globe, indulging avant-garde and ancient techniques, including that of an Inuit throat singer. It doesn’t feel like cultural tourism but careful, passionate excavation. Next time I go to the Met Museum and look at all the armour and tapestries I’m gonna blast the hell out of this record.
Snap rating: 2.5 Stars
ARC: The Timbaland connection is bad in theory and bad in execution.
Snap rating: 2 star
ARC: Oh my god. I think I figured out the reason I thought I disliked Bjork – it’s because of Biophilia! This came out right when I was plotting to become the next music editor of the Crimson. My rival at the time, Austin, had written the review, and had a lot of incredibly astute and cerebral points digging into the layers of the work. I listened and heard sluggish pretension. And so it was my frustration in failing to reach both Bjork and Austin, I think, that turned me off for a long time. Sorry, Austin, you’re the man. Also, this album is really bad.
Snap rating: 5 stars
ARC: In 2013, Arca turned 24. In the next three years, he would produce Yeezus, then FKA Twigs’ LP1, and then Vulnicura. If a young producer has ever helmed a consecutive trio of more astonishing, diverse, and ambitious projects, I can’t think of them.
Vulnicura is a sonic masterpiece, full stop. I could list the composite parts — languid strings, twitchy drum machines, thick vocal harmonies. That wouldn’t come close to conjuring the cinematic whole. You have to hear it to believe it.
On other projects like Biophilia, Bjork’s drive for aesthetic experimentation superseded the quality of her melodies. But Vulnicura is the complete package. There’s a lightness considering how busy the arrangements are; there’s optimism within her viscous heartbreak. The lyricism is on point: “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions,” she sings on “Black Lake.”
This record is my favorite one, for now, because of the stunning surprises that slash out whenever you think you’ve found your aural bearings. “Family” is a tense, immobile slab until it’s spiked by a frantic, angular string line and a crushing bass drum. “Atom Dance” seems stuck on one creeping ostinato until Anohni’s trippy vocal choir swells in. It’s disorienting in all the best possible ways.
Snap rating: 2.5 stars
ARC: I can’t be bothered with this one. Too many flutes.
JS: I dunno, I feel like I’m missing something here.
ARC: You’re not.
JS: Well, it’s clear that Bjork has taken some artistic leaps forward. Her string arranging has grown and taken on the quartal harmony and unresolved dissonance of composers like Stravinsky and Messiaen. And she’s has churned out a few of her best songs as well: “Blissing Me” takes on the strophic simplicity and meditative focus of folk music, “The Gate” serves as a dramatic postlude to Vulnicura, hopelessly hurtling towards cathartic release as Arca, Bjork’s Elvin Jones, curses and thrashes underneath.
For much of this album, however, there’s a discord between Bjork’s songwriting and Arca’s production that doesn’t sit right. At times, it almost seems like the two are sitting in completely different rooms, unified by only a click track, performing dazzling experiments in chemical combustion with no end goal. For another thing, the album is simply too long. The songs prattle on towards the six-and-seven minute mark as Bjork intones the same melodies with little variation. On the one hand, this could be seen as a gesture towards the hypnotic: Bjork treating her newfound sensory zest and flirtatious joy like a mantra. But it’s mighty slow to listen to.
With that being said, Bjork’s move towards prismatic choral, flute and string arrangements that crown stark, deconstructed song forms hints at an exciting new direction. I’m waiting with baited breath!
ARC: Whew. What a whirlwind. At the moment I’m counting three classics (Vulnicura, Vespertine and Post), a couple duds, a couple more worthwhile adventurous asides. That spread stacks up against essentially any career besides Kanye. If you need me, I’ll be watching the “Bachelorette” video, essentially an early “Black Mirror” episode, on loop, and quietly murmuring the incantation “car parts, bottles and cutlery” until I drift off to sleep.