Björk – Debut: Round 73 – Nick’s choice

BjorkDebutAs usual I had a handful of choices for Tom’s simple “your favourite album by an artist that isn’t considered to be the critical or fans’ consensus ‘best’” theme, but Björk’s was the first I thought of and, frankly, the one I wanted to play the most.

My assumption was that over the last 15 years or so, Post and, especially, Homogenic, had come to be regarded as Björk’s best records by pretty much everyone, but 21 years on from its release, and about 19 on from me first hearing it in full, Debut still remains my favourite front-to-back record by Iceland’s favourite daughter. Luckily, when it came to trial by RateYourMusic, Debut was indeed not her top-rated record, coming below those two and also Vespertine. Vindication!

Of course Debut wasn’t Björk’s debut album at all; as well as the small matter of her having fronted The Sugarcubes (a band who seem to get mentioned an inordinate amount at DRC, mainly by Tom), there was her eponymous ‘real’ debut album as a 12-year-old, which I suspect very few people outside of Iceland have ever heard. (And probably not many will have heard of.) (There’s also Gling-Gló, a 1990 album where Björk fronted a jazz trio. Never heard it, but intrigued…)

The sound of freedom after the collapse of The Sugarcubes, Debut was sort-of a record of Björk’s move to London and immersion in UK club music, taking in trip hop, house, dance-pop, and much more. It’s a vivacious, joyful album, which covers a lot of ground both musically and emotionally, but most importantly to me it’s also Björk’s must unabashedly ‘pop’ record; as odd as “Human Behaviour” might be, for instance, it’s also outrageously catchy, and when you add in “Big Time Sensuality”, “Venus As A Boy”, and the fabulous “There’s More To Life Than This (Recorded Live At The Milk Bar Toilets)”, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is not just Björk’s most accessible record, but one of the very best albums to come out of the mid-90s. I still love pretty much every second.

Rob listened: I was a big Sugarcubes fan and bought ‘Human Behaviour’, the single, and ‘Debut’, on their respective days of release. The single, a strange and snuffling, otherworldly beast, was enchanting, but seemed somehow a logical progression. The album felt very different, a deliberate and unmistakeable break with the past. It’s easy to forget what a bold step ‘Debut’ was. For Björk (out into the spotlight on her own without her band, and into new territory – easy to forget because she’s been taking radical steps ever since with almost every record) but also for the music of the time. Moving this decisively into club culture seemed almost jarring, although the record is anything but. However, like everything else she’s done, ‘Debut’ is wholehearted, sincere and completely convincing. Hearing it again I was surprised to note just how well it has stood the test of time, despite being so closely bound to the sounds of the 90s dancefloor. Perhaps not a true debut, but this is certainly the true arrival of one of the most distinctive and transfixing solo artists of our age.

Tom listened: When Nick played us Post, years ago now it seems, I just couldn’t get on with it. It felt too much of its time for my tastes and I could all too easily imagine it being rolled out during a dinner party scene in This Life or Thirtysomething. No fault of the record itself of course but, for me, the hurdle felt insurmountable and I knew that Post was one Bjork record I could strike off the list.

In contrast I thought Debut was spellbinding, much preferring it to its successor. Debut sounded fantastically assured, which I found surprising given the relatively short shrift that the latter two Sugarcubes albums received from the music press at the time of their release. Debut sounded to me like a record that had been made by someone who either felt they had nothing to lose or that they just couldn’t lose. Bjork didn’t really fit into either of these categories however – she had tasted considerable success with the Sugarcubes at the start of their recording career and must have had a distinctly sinking feeling as the music press turned on them with subsequent releases.

Yet, despite this, Debut sounds so confident. In fact it sounds just like the album to launch a uniquely successful solo career, one that says to the listener, ‘forget my previous missteps give me a fair listen, trust me and I’ll pay you back in spades over the course of the next 20 years (at least)’. Perhaps its ironic, therefore, that Post didn’t have the same effect on me but, whilst I may not love all the music that I have heard of Bjork’s over the years, it’s always interesting at the very least and, in the case of Debut, it sounded downright vital!

Fever Ray – Fever Ray: Round 34, Nick’s choice

Despite the massive acclaim, I didn’t like Silent Shout by The Knife initially; something about the production put me off, the density of it. I know it’s meant to be oppressive and strange, but it’s also meant to be pop, or catchy at the least, and the weight of the sound, the saturation of it, made me take against Silent Shout at first. I’ve grown to like it more over the years, and feel like I’m probably just half a dozen plays away from really, really liking it now.

But the debut solo album by one half of The Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson, clicked with me straight away, even though some people consider it to be even weirder, more oppressive, more unnerving and obtuse. The beats are less directly dance-oriented, the synthesisers and electronics more about atmosphere than about hooks, and, crucially for my ears, the production opens up, explores space and textural richness, and in doing so creates an almost tangibly beautiful landscape for Dreijer’s strange songs.

Because the songs on Fever Ray’s eponymous debut are nothing if not strange, concerned with the oddness of domesticity, observations and tales about both childhood and motherhood, lyrics about watering neighbours’ plants, about dishwasher tablets, about riding bicycles. Dreijer sings of living “between concrete walls / in my arms she felt so warm”, presumably a reference to her new status as a parent when she recorded the album.

In some ways, Fever Ray’s album is like a weird cousin of Kate Bush’s Aerial, an album concerned with washing machines and children and maintaining sensuality despite (or because of?) these intrusions on adult life. But, as ever, I’m not focussing on the lyrics, as strange and beguiling as Dreijer’s vignettes may be: I’m taking in the pure sound of it. The slow-burning, thrumming introduction of If I Had A Heart; the beautiful final third of When I Grow Up, synths and guitars intertwining like lovers; the sparse, crepuscular vistas of Keep The Streets Empty For Me; and Karin’s vocals throughout, digitised, filtered, altered, made massive, cavernous, android and unreal even as she sings about the most mundanely human topics possible.

Fever Ray is an incredible debut, an incredible record, the kind of thing that rewards attention and only gets better over time. I like it more than any single thing by the renowned group it’s an offshoot of, to the extent that thinking of it as a side-project, or solo excursion, seems ridiculous.

Tom Listened: Rob lent me this album a while ago. I turned a cursory ear to some of it and was happy to return it to him knowing that I could cross it off my intended purchases list. While listening to it at record club I worked out what the problem is with it (as far as I am concerned anyway). It’s sequenced in such a way that the most accessible songs appear later on in the album. In this day and age, it is so rare for this to be the case that I reckon I unfairly dismissed this as being too bleak (Silent Shout was darker than my sensitive soul can cope with anyway) to bother with without ever having reached the latter half of the record.

Well, giving this a proper listen last Wednesday, I can now see what all the fuss is about. I think I’ll always find Karin Andersson’s vocals to be a bit too ominous/alien for my taste (that acceptance speech thing doesn’t help) and I struggled to see the beauty in the tracks when it was pointed out but I did enjoy this much more than I thought I would and could see it really clicking in with a few more listens.

Nick responded: See this is one of those odd things about music and ears and brains and stuff; I’ve always thought that Fever Ray started with its catchiest songs (at tracks 2 and 4) and then got darker and more impenetrable from there!

Rob listened: Whoever said ‘Silent Shout’ was supposed to be catchy pop? It’s a nightmarish glimpse into a forest world of dark desires and degenerative disease, and quite brilliant for it.

However, I can’t say much about ‘Fever Ray’ that Nick hasn’t already covered. For me it’s an almost perfect record in conception and execution. Eerily familiar yet tantalisingly alien, Karin Dreijer never puts a foot wrong. The sounds are melt-in-the-mind perfect, her vocals a woozy, half-remembered dream and the whole package one of my favourite records of the last ten years.

Graham listened: Another new one on me and connected with it pretty much straight away. The use of synth and electronic sounds to create the atmosphere and feel of this album intrigue me opposed to the way their use on a lot of electronica/dance alienates me. Evoked some familiar atmospherics to that of early Cocteaus but also more weirdly I was reminded of the type of feel Depeche Mode were after with Songs of Faith and Devotion, strange?

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