While rewatching Dancer In The Dark recently, I found the experience even more traumatising in light of Björk’s sexual harassment allegations against Danish director Lars Von Trier. Björk’s performance in Dancer In The Dark is so extraordinary that it’s impossible to imagine any other actress playing Salma Jezkova – an immigrant factory worker who suffers from a genetic, degenerative eye condition and is saving up to pay for an expensive operation to prevent her young son from suffering the same fate. In the film, Salma creates music from surrounding rhythms, which echoes a quote from Björk during a 1993 interview with Elysa Gardner: “I think that the real modern beats are made of machines and cars and elevators and roadwork and people shouting and dogs barking. That’s what daily life sounds like, when you close your eyes and listen.”
Few will forget the first time they heard Björk singing. For me it was when triple j played Birthday by The Sugarcubes in 1988. The song’s woozy, otherworldly charm acted as the perfect vehicle for Björk’s malleable vocal, which sounded childlike but simultaneously omniscient. Verse lyrics mystified: “They’re smoking cigars/ He’s got a chain of flowers/ And sews a bird in her knickers” – WTF!? (The Sugarcubes always wrote their lyrics in Icelandic first before translating them into English.)
Who belonged to this voice? You couldn’t exactly Google it yet. You’d have to head to a cool record store and hope to find some cover art that included a photo, or stay up all night watching Rage or Rock Arena, praying for a film clip. Björk still looks like an ageless sprite from another world who carefully guards a secret.
And when she started styling her hair in small buns pinned all over the scone, willy-nilly, everyone growing out a short home-haircut copied her style (particularly ravers). She immersed herself in London club culture (regularly spotted on Trade’s dancefloor) after moving there when The Sugarcubes disbanded in the early ’90s. Björk also supplied guest vocals for Manchester’s 808 State (Ooops and Qmart).
In search of collaborators for her own debut solo album, Björk started working with 808 State’s Graham Massey while also recording demos with jazz multi-instrumentalist Corky Hale (who plays harp on the album’s only cover: Like Someone In Love). But when her boyf, DJ Dominic Thrupp (widely believed to be the inspiration behind another Debut album track, Venus As A Boy) introduced Björk to Nellee Hooper (Massive Attack, Soul II Soul) they immediately clicked and set about creating her greatest commercial hit.
Debut stayed in the UK Albums Chart for 79 weeks (peaking at #3), reached #10 in the ARIA Albums Chart and went Platinum in the US. The album smashed the record label’s worldwide sales expectations of 40,000, surpassing that amount in its first week and going on to sell upwards of a million copies within six months. Often credited as one of the first albums to introduce electronic music into mainstream pop, Debut mashes up diverse elements – from techno to classical, house to jazz – and only succeeds thanks to one cohesive thread: Björk’s distinctive voice. The production on There’s More To Life Than This (recorded live in the toilets of The Milk Bar, a defunct London club) is super-slick. Björk guides the listener from dancefloor to toilets, back to the dancefloor and then exits the club without needing to specify her whereabouts through lyrical content – genius.
During Crying, with its Italo houseinspired piano riff, the toot of a train whistle is replicated. Venus As A Boy‘s strings, arranged by Talvin Singh, were recorded by a film studio orchestra in India. Oliver Lake, of veteran free-jazz group Art Ensemble of Chicago, arranged sax for the bossa nova-inflected Aeroplane and The Anchor Song.
Björk wrote Human Behaviour – chosen as Debut’s lead single to provide a sonic bridge from The Sugarcubes – while she was still in the band. The song nods toward her obsession with David Attenborough (watch the 2013 When Björk Met Attenborough doco), features a timpani sample and lyrics from an animal’s point of view. The playful, surreal accompanying musical video saw Björk starring alongside a giant teddy bear and was the first of many collaborations with Michel Gondry. Play Dead – a song Björk cowrote with Jah Wobble and David Arnold for The Young Americans film – appeared as a bonus track on Debut‘s UK reissue and the album’s Japanese version (which also featured the bonus track Atlantic).
The Best Mixes From The Album Debut For All The People Who Don’t Buy White Labels – which enlisted the likes of Underworld, Endorphin and Black Dog – came out in 1994, Björk insisting on a low price since she didn’t want to make any money from it.
When last in the country for VIVID Live 2016, hosting the world premiere of her Björk Digital VR exhibition, she also did a Q&A and performed two five-hour DJ sets. Björk walked into Sydney’s Carriageworks and the atmosphere shifted: we were in the presence of greatness. Her tendril headpiece concealed her face and a pearl dangled in front of each eye. Without Björk, there would be no Lady Gaga.
A true innovator, Björk constantly reshapes musical possibilities, marrying technology with ancient instrumentation and inventing to navigate obstacles. Björk’s ability to convey raw emotion through her voice is matchless. Her yowls tap into unfathomable suffering; we’re talking Salma-level devastation.