Holy Hell! Debut Turns 20

Holy Hell! Debut Turns 20

bjork-debut1Not many 11-year olds manage to score record deals. Eccentric singer-songwriter Björk is an exception. One of her classical piano instructors sent a tape of the future star singing “I Love to Love” by Tina Charles to Iceland’s only operating radio station (in 1977) where its broadcast reached the right ears and a self-titled album on a small Icelandic label was cut. Of course, that piece of juvenilia isn’t the only reason why the title of Björk’s 1993 album Debut is a misnomer–prior to that landmark album, she’d also already fronted four different bands. While you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s ever heard anything by Exodus or Jam-80 (the short-lived bands from her teenage years), her first serious project, a post-punk outfit called Tappi Tíkarrass (English translation: Cork the Bitch’s Ass) put out an EP and a full-length in the early ‘80s before Björk formed alternative rock band the Sugarcubes along with her then-husband on the same day she gave birth to the couple’s son. In other words, she’d already been quite busy prior to her Debut.

Her work with the Sugarcubes, who released three successful albums, established Björk as a vocal powerhouse, capable of cutesy intonations as readily as she could belt it out, and she exhibited an instantly identifiable timbre that made her solo career inevitable. Even before the Sugarcubes disbanded, Björk began shopping around her own material with the band’s label One Little Indian. Once the breakup became official, she pursued collaborators for the eventual Debut, a project for which she’d already written many of the songs in previous years. She later explained in interviews that Debut was titled as such because it served as a rebirth for her, and she considered her music on the album to be “like a virgin trying to express herself” and that it contained “songs I had kept in darkness and locked in my little diary.” In fact, opening track and hit single “Human Behaviour”– for which Michael Gondry would direct the dreamily lit, enormous walking teddy bear-featuring music video – had actually been written by the artist during her teenage years.

The songs new and old that came together on Björk’s first proper solo album display a great deal of pop prescience. Despite her various punk band leanings throughout the ’80s, Björk would uncork an album heavily featuring four-to-the-floor house beats that, while not exactly innovative, were against the norm for both pop and alternative music from the era. Debut’s initially mixed response by American critics (though highly lauded in Europe) is indicative of this, as many music critics in the grunge-infused early-‘90s complained about a lack of rock music elements. But Debut’s genius lies in that Björk didn’t rely on her punk roots or swing way out into the avant-garde tangents she’d later develop, but instead matched intimate songwriting with production techniques that were entirely new to her. She has said that Debut “was all the songs I wrote during 10 years in my house on Iceland after my son had gone to bed.” Yet, upon meeting producer Nellee Hooper—who’d worked with the likes of Sinéad O’Connor and Massive Attack—she was introduced to studio production technology for the first time. The addition of keyboards and synthesizers would launch her new electronic direction, and Björk would even do the production work on “Like Someone in Love” and “The Anchor Song.”

Much of the music on Debut’s heavy-hitters could get bodies moving in any decent club today. The simple piano hook and infectious electro-beat on “Crying” provide a kinetic backdrop for some of Björk’s heartier vocals while she invokes a sense of movement for her lyrics about trains, ships and weaving through crowded streets. In “Big Time Sensuality,” she sings, “It takes courage to enjoy it/ The hardcore and the gentle” and there may be no better lyric to describe her vast spectrum of voice that can fearlessly approach both growl and shriek while turning on a dime to retreat into intimate whispers and coos. Today, the industrially-tinged beat in that track sounds as though it could pop up on a new release of Nordic electronica from any number of newcomers and still sound just as fresh. Meanwhile, the live-recorded track “There’s More to Life Than This” is backed with the kind of untz that would eventually make it into the more electronic-oriented jam band scenes by the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and the groaning bass and hi-hat beat of “Violently Happy” seems to almost require glow sticks.

Yet Björk’s diverse music styles that would grow even more experimental and ethereal in subsequent releases are already evident here. In going one-on-one with jazz harpist Corky Hale on the sleepy ballad “Like Someone in Love,” she gorgeously joins her voice with that most heavenly of all stringed instruments. Saxophonist Oliver Lake similarly paired off with her in “The Anchor Song” and also contributed backing sax to the lumbering and moody “Aeroplane.”

Despite a bevy of instrumentalists at her side, Debut could reasonably be slapped with a catch-all genre label like alternative dance or post-pop. Björk would go on to make more complex and experimental albums in later years, and her 1995 follow-up effort, Post, would be more immediately well-received in the U.S., and would chart higher overall. But as a culmination of years of scribbling at home, Debut turns out to be appropriately titled, as it’s what launched an international superstar in Björk. Superstardom has had mixed results for her; for as much eccentric fun as that oddball swan dress was at the 2001 Oscars, she’s also had to deal with a frightening stalker whose sulfuric acid letter-bomb was thankfully intercepted by Scotland Yard, her own unhinged physical assault of a journalist in a Bangkok airport and the bastardizing of her avant-garde fashion statements by Lady Gaga. But while her persona may have gotten stranger–and she herself has claimed the album is not her most identifiable work–20 years later Debut sounds as fresh as it did in 1993, when it was pop music that was completely ahead of its time.

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