Holy Hell! Post Turns 20

Holy Hell! Post Turns 20

bjork2Perhaps the most interesting and perpetually mysterious aspect of Björk’s character is that she represents so many different ideas to so many people. Whether it’s her deviously disparate early material or her more conceptually high-minded recent work, it seems as though Björk’s music touches no two individuals in quite the same way. The genesis of this artistic quality is her genre-defying 1995 classic, Post, the first blockbuster of truly post-modern pop music. Björk was an important music figure before ‘95, of course—notably as a member of internationally successful rock band the Sugarcubes as well as with her proper solo debut from 1993—but Post was the cultural tipping point when she became a universally recognized auteur, an equally gifted singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist that challenged audiences as much as touched them. Twenty years later, the album is still the pinnacle of an impressively deep catalog.

Post is only a little easier to nail down now than it was in 1995. Between the brutal industrial trip-hop of “Army of Me” and “Enjoy,” the sweeping, emotive electronic sounds of “Hyperballad” and “Modern Things” and one-off curiosities like the jazzy Betty Hutton cover “It’s Oh So Quiet,” the record is the closest a pop album has ever come to musical stream-of-consciousness. Each song features a memorably raw vocal performance from Björk, who transitions from whisper-quiet melodies to ear-piercing squeals in a flash and rarely delivers a phrase the same way twice. Note her dynamic performance on “Isobel,” which intensifies with the music and climbs in pitch as the beat builds and rapturous strings glide in, or her more understated performance on the subtle “Possibly Maybe.” Björk shows a daring amount of range as a vocalist and a producer on Post, flexing her versatility more than on any other album in her discography. It makes for a chaotic record, but one that’s still remarkably infectious and listenable because of that comforting, consistent voice.

Björk’s structural experimentation hadn’t yet materialized in the way it would on later albums, so there are plenty of hooks and refrains, meticulously implanted into the arrangements to provide a sense of logical movement. The immaculate drum machine grooves and steady pulsing basslines that course through the album are in sharp contrast to the dynamic, theatrical singing style that Björk long ago mastered, a juxtaposition that’s beautifully rendered on the fiercely sung “Army of Me,” the intense human emotion over the glitchy electronic sounds of “Hyperballad,” and the sparse, atmospheric “Headphones.” Before Radiohead’s Kid A popularized the combination of lush IDM electronics and more traditional instrumentation and song construction, influencing generations of musicians in the process, Björk perfected it with Post.

Even in a career full of absurd deviances and experimental innovations, Post represents the most varied and consistent stage of Björk’s legacy. The artist would later commit to both more intimate and emotional material (Homogenic) and more expansive, abstract ideas (Biophilia), but Post took both and imbued them with an offbeat accessibility. The big band show tune-y “It’s Oh So Quiet” preceded her starring role in director Lars Von Trier’s notorious musical Dancer in the Dark and its companion soundtrack album Selmasongs, a deeply industrial collection of tracks that retained the emotional peaks and valleys of that particular film genre and of that song. The same theatricality that defined the Spike Jonze-directed music video for “It’s Oh So Quiet,” Björk’s most successful single to date, can be heard in Dancer in the Dark numbers like “Cvalda” and “In the Musicals,” while Björk’s devastating performance in the film was no doubt informed by the same manic, bittersweet energy.

Today, with her 2015 album, Vulnicura, a destructive, somber epic of catastrophic heartbreak, Björk seems as far from the frenetic, dizzying joys of Post as she could be, but her singular voice is still the pendulum that keeps the music in steady rhythm. Post was the first album for which Björk had a producer credit on every song, starting her down the path of the more personalized, individualistic style that she’s recognized for today, exemplified by the viscerally intimate Vulnicura. Caught between the blurry electronic pop of Debut and the more experimental nature of Homogenic, Post is the sound of an artist in transition, one who thrives in two environments and flourishes when dabbling in both.

As a progenitor for the merging of pop, electronic and rock worlds—a totally unique expression of personal artistic power and a fractured masterpiece that would inform the next two decades of music—there is perhaps no overstating the importance of the precedent that Björk’s 1995 triumph set for the music of the 21st century, and yet it remains perfectly enjoyable even outside of that umbrella of influence. Its quirky, melancholic electropop tracks “Hyperballad” and “Possibly Maybe” sound as if they could have been released this year, while heavier cuts like “Army of Me” have aged better than even their early trip-hop influences. Two decades on, there’s still few musicians that can rival the artistry or mystery of Björk, but somehow she continues to deliver eccentric, challenging, innovative music, ensuring that we’ll have something like Post to marvel at for years to come.

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