Saturday, February 28, 2015

Björk Marathon: Debut

After the split of The Sugarcubes, Björk wasted no time: she moved to London with her son Sindri. Hell bent on pursuing a solo career, she began working with producer Nellee Hooper, and together they produced Björk's first international hit single as a solo artist, "Human Behavior". It wasn't on rotation much on the radio, but on MTV, it was a blockbuster, on constant rotation, accompanied by a groundbreaking music video directed by Oscar-winning film director, Michel Gondry.

And then, on June 1993, along came the highly-anticipated debut that the world had been waiting for:

Like all of Björk's solo records, the album cover for Debut has a character representing the mood or theme of the album itself, which is shown through the sonic landscapes of the songs contained within. On this cover, that character is shy, demure, and humble, a newcomer. Though Björk is far from being new in the music industry, having had a debut album at age 11 and being in so many bands, Björk named the album "debut" to signify the start of something new. Even that is ironic as well, because many of the songs here were written by Björk when she was a teenager, but at that time, because she was in punk bands and those songs weren't punk at all, she had to put them aside. And then there are other songs that she wrote prior to the album's production. Far from being "new", the songs themselves are also far from shy like the character on the album cover. Instead, they burst with confidence, abandon, and excitement, ranging in many styles from electronic pop, trip-hop, world music, house music, dance, and jazz. So many electric tastes and fusions remarkably become one whole, like a united nations of sound. The album from start to finish feels and sounds like a celebration - a celebration about love, courage, freedom, and about loving life itself.

Debut received positive reviews and critical acclaim; it was named album of the year by NME and eventually went platinum in the USA. At the 1994 Brit Awards, Björk won for Best International Female and Best International Newcomer. With the success of Debut, Björk was able to collaborate with many British artists. Naturally, because it's Björk, there were many collaborators! Such as:

David Arnold. She worked with him on "Play Dead," the theme to the 1993 film, The Young Americans (the song would become a hit single, and would later appear as a "bonus track" with the re-release of Debut).

Tricky on his Nearly God album, where Björk was featured on two tracks:

"Keep Your Mouth Shut"


Plaid on their Not for Threes album, where she wrote and sang the song "Lillith":

And she wrote the song "Bedtime Story" for Madonna's 1994 album, Bedtime Stories.The original version was called "Sweet Sweet Intuition," and there are actually two versions of it!

This is the first version, my personal favorite. Isn't it beautiful?

And here's the "techno" version:

Ultimately Björk would re-write and re-title the song, and the "Bedtime Story" we hear in Bedtime Stories is what made the final cut. Both versions of "Sweet, Sweet Intuition" would become b-sides for the Army of Me single.

And lastly, Björk had an uncredited role in the 1994 movie, Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear):

Three more hit singles and music videos were released from Debut, which were:

"Venus as a Boy"

"Big Time Sensuality"

"Violently Happy"

Despite Debut not being Björk's personal favorite work, where she said that she feels that it wasn't "her best work," for me, this album is just the greatest. Sure, she's right about that - Debut is not her best work, and it may not be my favorite album from her, but what makes this album so perfect is the timing. Björk moved to London at the right time when the London scene was thriving and brimming over with creativity, where many international musical influences were coming into play and being explored.  And this was a ripe time for Björk's creativity as well, where no longer a part of a band, but now being her own artist, lyricist, and musician, she was the most open to new ideas, new influences, and new collaborators, all which would greatly influence the album that Debut became.

Today, Debut still captures the innocence and wide-eyed curiosity of that culture that has long been gone, but still flourishes here, as charming, original, and energetic as ever. Debut also preserves the spirit of the MTV generation, specifically on this CD and these DVDs from this album era (but was released later, in 2001):

Debut Live 
This CD is from an MTV Unplugged session. It's a bit rough around the edges sometimes audio-wise, but you can hear loud and clear all the wonderful cultural statements and musical influences on this record. This live version of Debut captures the essence of the studio version but unbelievably, it sounds sweeter, heralding a very creative, exciting, and refreshing new venture for popular music.

MTV Unplugged & Live 

This DVD is divided into two parts: MTV Unplugged (1994) and MTV Live (1998). MTV Unplugged is that session that the CD above is from while the MTV Live is taken mostly from later sessions from later albums. The quality of this DVD feels and looks dated, but the performances aren't. Watching this now, it's almost hard to believe that Björk was once an MTV darling, and even harder to believe that MTV welcomed an artist like her with such open arms on national television. The concert could've been livelier, but as it is here, there's something enchanting about how straightforward and simple these performances were. It wasn't about gimmicks, only about the music.


Part concert film, part documentary, Vessel focuses on not only the MTV Unplugged sessions in-studio, but also on Björk. In her own words, we learn about her journey as an immigrant, what the album means to her, how she got on with her collaborators, the process of producing the album, everyone's musical influences and cultural backgrounds, and how Björk was (at the time) transitioning from the small-town feel of Reykjavik to living in a bustling, busy city like London, and juggling two languages, Icelandic and English, back and forth. This may sound boring in words, but on this DVD, Björk is just a ray of sunshine. She's literally jumping and bouncing and grinning with so many emotions as she tells us her story in her adorable soft-spoken broken English and dominant Icelandic accent. Her anecdotes are amusing, where she comes off as so child-like, dorky, and awkward. Very cute! She really is delightful and fun on this DVD, and the live performances feel very much in the moment, capturing all that excitement of what was a magical time for not only  Björk, but for music. Not to mention, this is perhaps the first time that Björk's concert footage has ever looked so clear, bright, colorful, and on-point from start to finish! It's just rich with perfection!

I suppose the same could be said about Debut too. It's rich, it's perfect. It's simply golden.

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