I have this utopian view that the common person – like your gran, or the guy who works in the sandwich shop – actually wants an adventure, to hear something they’ve never heard before. I might seem leftfield, but I’m really not trying to be weird, you know.
Björk, Daily Telegraph, 2005
Born: 1965, Reykjavík, Iceland
Featured album: Medúlla (2004)
SO YOU WANT to be an art-pop genius? Well, it helps if you were born a child prodigy – just ask Captain Beefheart, Diamanda Galás and Nina Hagen. But with the exception of maybe Kate Bush, few gifted youngsters who’ve grown up to traverse music’s outer limits have attained the sort of mainstream recognition Björk has. Maybe that’s because she’s as earthly as she is otherworldly, as attuned to pop as she is to the avant-garde.
Having studied classical piano and flute at school, and as besotted with Abba as she was with Stockhausen, Björk Guðmundsdóttir released her first album in 1977 at the age of eleven. Punk hit Iceland shortly after, and as a teenager, Björk was a key player in several of the country’s seminal groups including the raw and eclectic Tappi Tikkarrass and the darker and more experimental Kukl. Most of Kukl’s members would move on to form The Sugarcubes, and by trading experimental clatter for quirky indie pop, they became Iceland’s first internationally acclaimed band. With her eccentric behaviour, iconic look and idiosyncratic vocals – controlled but with a breathy exuberance and growling intensity – Björk captured the attention of the press and punters alike.
Still a Sugarcube, Björk sang on an album of jazz standards, Gling-Gló (1990) by Icelandic tríó Guðmundar Ingólfssonar, and on the tracks “Qmart” and “Ooops” from ex:el (1991) by Manchester house act 808 State, before embarking on her solo career. Keen to explore the then-burgenoning world of electronic music, the title of Debut (1993) was a deliberate move to wipe the slate clean, The Sugarcubes having disbanded and Björk now residing in London. Recorded with trip-hop producer Nellee Hooper, Debut blended house music with pop, jazz and so-called world-music sensibilities, while also including subtly unusual touches: “Aeroplane” is an off-kilter collection of odd time signatures, while field recordings burble away under several songs – “There’s More to Life Than This” was even recorded in a nightclub toilet! Post, which included contributions from Hooper, Tricky, Howie B and 808 State’s Graham Massey among others, followed in 1995. While a cover of the big-band tune “It’s Oh So Quiet” endeared her to mums everywhere*, the propulsive industrial march “Army of Me”, the wasp-nest hum and stabbing trumpet** of “Enjoy”, and the wispy harp-and-noises collage “Cover Me” saw her venturing into more unfamiliar territory.
Björk’s next album was the first to feature production by Mark Bell, who would become one of her most frequent collaborators. Whereas Post was extravagant and all over the musical map, Homogenic (1997) was a simple and stripped down tribute to her native country. With an outfit designed by Alexander McQueen, another frequent collaborator, Homogenic’s cover depicted Björk as a kind of futuristic pancultural alien warrior – part Japanese geisha, part Ethiopian queen, with fucked-up pupils – and the once manic pixie dreamgirl was now emerging as an artistic force to be reckoned with. The backwards accordion on “Hunter” and glass harmonica on “All Neon Like” added a peculiar edge to the album’s implosive beats and heartbreaking strings, while “Pluto” – with its distorted vocals and cracked-machine abrasiveness – was nothing short of punishing. Homogenic was followed by Selmasongs (2000), Björk’s soundtrack to Lars Von Trier’s musical, Dancer in the Dark, for which she won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Featuring vocal contributions by cast members Catherine Deneuve and Siobhan Fallon, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, an industrial sensibility ran throughout, its material sounding at times like showtunes as performed by Einstürzende Neubauten.
By now an international celebrity and avatar for eccentricity, Björk donned the infamous swan dress she’d worn to the Oscars for the cover of the wintry and erotically intimate Vespertine (2001). Written during the evenings while working on Von Trier’s film, and laid on a foundation of glitchy microbeats provided by electronic duo Matmos, it featured the sound of snow crunching underfoot, the voices of an Icelandic choir, and the mechanical clink of custom-made music-boxes. Vespertine was challenging yet achingly fragile (the sort of album you could almost describe as beautiful ‘n’ weird). But on her next release, Medúlla (2006), Björk was not afraid to embrace ugliness. On an album created almost entirely with vocal sounds, Björk recruited the likes of Canadian throat singer Tanya ‘Tagaq’ Gillis, Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Fantômas), Robert Wyatt (The Soft Machine), and beat-boxers Rahzel (The Roots), Dokaka and Shlomo to provide a plethora of voices for her strangest offering so far. Some of its coarse, hyperventilating oddness, particularly Tagaq’s throat singing, was combined with traditional Japanese instruments and guest vocals by Will Oldham on the mostly instrumental soundtrack for Drawing Restraint 9, an experimental film by Björk’s then-partner Matthew Barney.
By the time Björk returned to more accessible territory with Volta (2007), the mainstream had almost caught up, and the rhythmic slapstick of hip-hop and R&B mastermind Timbaland (“Innocence” could almost be a Missy Elliot track) dovetailed seamlessly with tribal-industrial bangers and ambient maritime interludes. Guests included Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnstons, and Brian Chippendale of Lightning Bolt, who sadly went underutilised on “The Dull Flame of Desire”. The Mount Wittenberg Orca EP collaboration with Dirty Projectors came in 2010, and with ambitions seemingly rekindled, it was followed by Biophilia (2011). Part of a massive multimedia undertaking including a series of apps and educational workshops, the album explored the shared territory between technology and nature, and was perhaps even more challenging in its primordial minimalism than Medúlla. It was followed by the emotionally raw Vulnicura (2015), a work documenting the process of healing from her breakup with Barney, and a return to Homogenic’s strings-and-beats approach. Her most accessible album in some time, songs like “Notget” were nevertheless as bonkers as they were affecting, like the sound of open wounds healing in time-lapse.
Björk’s career has been a testament to the notion that experimental music need not be a purely cerebral exercise. Treating each new musical experience as an adventure, she’s just as comfortable singing pop as she is performing a difficult atonal piece by Schoenberg or having her voice manipulated by others, as Death Grips did for their Niggas on the Moon EP (2015). With remix and live albums outnumbering her studio releases, and a plethora of other projects to her name, she’s become an important figure not just in the music world, but in the visual arts, film, fashion and beyond. Without Björk’s influence, it’s difficult to imagine the existence of musical freaks like The Knife, CocoRosie or Animal Collective for instance, or eccentric twenty-first-century popstars like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. Björk is a true original. She’s a visionary who’s managed to maintain her sense of childlike wonder while changing the face of pop and art music, and her work embraces and subsumes all contradictions. In Björk’s world, the technological is perfectly natural, the emotional and the intellectual are not mutually exclusive, and the bizarre and even unpleasant can be very listenable indeed. Thankfully, Björk’s world is our world too.
* Or at least mine. My mum bought the CD because of that song, but soon gave it to me because she didn’t like stuff like “Army of Me” and “Enjoy”.
** The trumpet playing was provided by ex-Kukl and -Sugarcubes vocalist Einar Örn Benediktsson.
The Inner or Deep Part of an Animal or Plant Structure – documentary on the making of Medúlla, in which Björk admits to developing a craving for the music of Swans after her second pregnancy. It features Tagaq, Mike Patton, Rahzel, Dokaka and Schlomo (2004).
“Storm” video from Drawing Restraint 9 (2005)
Live performance in Paris from Voltaïc DVD (2008)