‘Big Time Sensuality’
1993 was a good year for innovative and influential popular music. The relatively new innovation of CDs was just starting to do wonders for the music business as a whole. Not only did the new digital sound quality attract new listeners, it also persuaded music fans with vinyl records to buy their favourite albums all over again. This influx of cash meant that record companies could afford to take more risks, and albums started appearing that almost certainly wouldn’t have got record company backing a decade earlier: Pablo Honey by Radiohead and Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins, Doggystyle by Snoop Dogg and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by the Wu-Tang Clan, Rid of Me by PJ Harvey and Modern Life Is Rubbish by Blur, to name but a handful. And on the indie label front, the previous year had seen the release of Artificial Intelligence, a compilation of artists on Sheffield’s WARP Records who would define the cutting edge of Rave-influenced electronic music for the next decade.
Even so, when Björk’s album Debut appeared, it sounded like it came from another planet. Debut, and its ‘sequel’ Post (as in ‘before’ and ‘after’) changed the cultural landscape in terms of how experimental you could be whilst still being mainstream-successful. Every single released from both albums made the Top 40 of the UK singles chart (several made the top 10) and yet the melodies and arrangements were arguably more sophisticated and left-field than anything the cutting edge artists were producing. Before long, remixes of her tracks were circulating from the most respected electronic artists: Black Dog, Underworld, Sabres of Paradise, Graham Massey, RZA, Mark Bell, Talvin Singh, Plaid, μ-Ziq. Even Thom York has cited Björk as a major influence on the Radiohead’s ‘greatest album of all time’.
But Björk became so much more than just an indie darling. Like that other 90s enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino, she became not only a household name but an adjective. She earnt herself the greatest suffix that any artist can aspire to: ‘-esque’. (Singers like Cerys Matthews would be described as sounding ‘Björkesque’, and everyone knew exactly what that meant.) Other artists at the time may have tried to be idiosyncratic, but Björk was clearly off the chart. Her Icelandic eccentricity even saw her parodied on prime-time TV.
So what was it that separated Björk from all the other avant-gardeners, and turned into an international treasure?
I think it comes down to this: being experimental in art is really not that difficult — anyone can do it — but making experimental art that’s loved by millions of people requires the rarest of talent. Whatever anyone may have said about her, her foreign accent, her crazy clothes, her crazier music… people actually related to her. Because she wrote about relatable things. She wrote about falling in love, as a series of joyous adventures tinged with danger, in a way that anyone who had fallen in love could recognise. She wrote about getting drunk and going dancing, and then going to the bakers to taste the first bread of the morning, about sharing music with friends, about her friends, her country, its people and landscapes. She may have approached all of these subjects in totally unconventional ways, but she was never someone who tried to hide behind a veil of baffling obscurity. The things she wanted to say were recognisably about the realities of living an emotional life.
Oh, and being Björk seemed fucking amazing. She seemed like she was loving every second of it.
By way of example, let’s start with her first single from Debut: ‘Human Behaviour’.
Lyrically, to me, it’s a great mission statement for her career:
“If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready, be ready to get confused…”
“But, oh, to get involved in the exchange
Of human emotions
Is ever so, ever so satisfying”
Musically, it’s unlike anything before or since: the track is driven by timpani and snare, with a riff that flicks between major and minor keys (a musical device that recurs through the whole album). And the video… MTV was hugely popular, and I spent pretty much the whole of 1993 watching it, at a time when lots of money was being spent on videos, but very few people took them seriously as art. When ‘Human Behaviour’ — directed Michel Gondry of by Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind fame — came along it kind of blew my mind, and I think it created a video aesthetic that you can see in, say, the video for Laura Marling’s ‘Ghosts’.
Skipping forward to the next album, Post, which only reinforced the idea of Björk as a single-minded artistic powerhouse… Björk and Gondry again invent a whole new style of music video for the deeply strange ‘Army of Me’. But despite the dream-like logic of the imagery, the emotion of the song — “and if you complain once more… you’ll meet an army of me…” — comes through loud and clear. Also, just on a musical point, if you don’t know the song, try watching this and guessing what note she’ll start singing on:
Something else that marked her out from her 90s contemporaries was that there was always more to her than partying. When other artists were loudly proclaiming how ‘mad for it’ they were, she gave us ‘There’s more to life than this’, a House track that literally goes from the dancefloor into the ladies toilets to say “come on girl, let’s slip out of this party, it’s getting boring… there’s more to life than this”.
And then of course there’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’. I mean, who else but Björk could not only pull this off but turn it into a smash hit?
Curiously, even though Post is drenched in post-Rave dance culture, there is also a strong Jazz influence, and it crops up on Debut too, in the form of ‘Like Someone In Love’, which I think is a beautiful beautiful version of a Jazz standard. Technically, I suppose her singing would be considered to be too undisciplined for most Jazz purists, but I think totally works because she does what Frank Sinatra did: she performs the emotion like an actor. She makes you believe it. In fact, I think she out-Sinatras Sinatra by a factor of about 10. She is so good at love songs, and clearly loves exploring all the different ways the feeling of falling in love can be expressed, from ‘Violently Happy’ to ‘Venus As A Boy’ to ‘Enjoy’ to ‘Possibly Maybe’…
I mean, I’m just reeling through the hits here: you could write many books about the indelible mark that Björk has left on modern music. The sheer density of her ideas and scope of her artistic vision are way to expansive to give a comprehensive overview here.
Perhaps the track that first got her noticed on a global stage was ‘Big Time Sensuality’ and, like ‘Human Behaviour’, I always assumed it was something of a mission statement for her. There’s this line that seems to sum up the giddy excitement of those first two albums: “We’ve just met, and I know I’m a bit too intimate… but something huge is coming up…” The energy and experimentation of the 90s indie-dance world eventually burst and deflated, internet streaming cut music business profits and major label signings became less and less adventurous. When I occasionally ask myself “That ‘big time sensuality’ that Björk said was coming up… what was it exactly? And, did it ever arrive?” the answer that I end up with is that yes, I think it did arrive. But in the end I think it turned out to simply be Björk’s body of work.