Björk’s Debut at 25: A tantalising tip of the audio iceberg

By titling her 1993 breakthrough Debut, Björk cutely shrugged off the juvenilia of an earlier self-titled solo album – an Icelandic collection of translated covers released some 16 years earlier – and subtly distanced herself from the three LPs she recorded as lead singer of The Sugarcubes, instead pointedly signalling her unfiltered voice as unleashed for the first time.

As revolutionary as it was, Debut – which celebrates a 25th anniversary this month – held only bare hints of the heights of artistic invention its author would later rise to. Yet it remains both a generation-defining classic and an apt introduction to one of the most rewarding back catalogues in popular music.

Opener Human Behaviour welcomes us to Björk’s colourful cosmic universe with skittish marching band rhythms and a funky timpani riff sampled from Antônio Carlos Jobim, framing that searing, untamed trademark voice – both playful and primordial, coquettish and confessional. The lyric addresses us from the point of view of an alien – establishing its creator’s otherworldliness from the off.

So much of the record’s charms lie in these contrasting textures and unexpected instrumentation – such as the chiming percussion, tabla and Indian orchestra of lilting love letter Venus as a Boy. The rich chamber/neo-classical wonder of Björk’s latter work finds precedent in the haunting closer The Anchor Song – originally a self-produced demo set solely to multitracked saxophone – and the enduring harp-backed jazz standard Like Someone in Love.

The role of then-hip producer Nellee Hooper has perhaps been historically overstated, but the influence of the UK’s early ’90s club scene remains revelatory, most evident in the repeatedly remixed singles Violently Happy and Big Time Sensuality. While far from the first female falsetto to wail over a four-to-the-floor beat, Björk did so as a singer-songwriter, not a hired gun, flipping the genre’s predominant DJ-led hierarchy squarely on its head.

And, pivotally, she sold records doing so – Björk legitimated electronica to critics and introduced clubby sounds to a wider mainstream audience, decimating the post-grunge idea that serious and insightful music needed to be made by moody men with guitars. Debut also made Björk a household name, eventually selling close to five million copies and topping numerous decade-end poles. For all its depth, originality and impact, Debut was just the tip of an iceberg – but what a way to begin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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