Bjork’s ‘Debut’ Turns 20: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
Those who were around to witness the inception of Björk‘s solo career may be scratching their heads and wondering where, exactly, the last two decades have gone. Has it really been so long since the manic Icelandic pixie popped out of a volcano and impressed us with her Debut? (Technically this was her second solo album, if you count the obscure jazz LP she made at age 11.) Indeed it has. This month, the ex-Sugarcube and high priestess of art-pop celebrates two decades of musical innovation as the highly influential Debut turns 20. That said, in spite of its advancing age, Debut’s futurism has aged exquisitely.
Upon her split with the Sugarcubes (whose college radio hits included “Motorcrash,” “Regina,” and “Hit”) no one was expecting the tour-de-force that was Debut. After a series of false starts, Björk herself didn’t even have a clear vision for the project until she hooked up with producer Nellee Hooper, acclaimed for his previous work with Massive Attack and Sinead O’Connor. Once the two met — and clicked — ideas started to flow and the album began to take shape as a passionate, idiosyncratic, state-of-the-art clubland affair. First single “Human Behaviour” gave a good indication of what lay ahead.
Björk — “Human Behaviour”
With its lumbering beat, ironic lyrics and fiery delivery, “Human Behaviour” blazed its way onto modern radio in the summer of 1993. The track made an equally powerful impression at MTV, thanks to an arresting clip by future Oscar-winner Michel Gondry. With “Human Behaviour,” Gondry matched an array of frightening, childlike images to Björk’s equally out-there musicality. This clip established the singer as an artist for whom visuals would always play an important part. The single would go on to hit the UK Top 40 and eventually sit at #2 on the US Club Play chart.
When the album dropped shortly thereafter, critics were bowled over by its trendy electro stylings and overall sonic variety. Indeed, one thing that still works for the album is its eclectic mix of styles, delivered in measures both tasteful and avant-garde, often bizarre but with a commercial pop sheen. Björk’s wide-ranging musical influences and Hooper’s Grammy-winning expertise proved to be a match made in heaven. After the darkness of “Human Behaviour” came the lightness of second single “Venus As A Boy,” taking the Icelandic singer even higher into the British charts.
Björk — “Venus as a Boy”
Björk’s first attempt at a ballad is filled with lush strings by Talvin Singh and includes some of her randiest lyrics. The rather simple video, directed by Sophie Muller, is preoccupied with sexual symbolism, most of it inspired by Georges Bataille’s novella Story Of The Eye. (You know — the one where the incredible edible egg becomes a conduit for one woman’s orgasms?) The single peaked at UK #29 and was later featured in the Natalie Portman/Jean Reno action classic, The Professional.
It’s also worth noting that Björk had her biggest solo hit with a non-album single around this time with “Play Dead,” a collaboration with producer David Arnold from his soundtrack to the Harvey Keitel vehicle The Young Americans. Added to later international pressings of Debut, this epic, Shirley Bassey-esque belter (with additional production from trip-hop stalwart Tim Simenon) gave Björk her highest chart placing at the time, hitting #12 in the UK in the autumn of 1993.
Björk — “Play Dead”
With critics wowed and pop audiences intrigued, Björk kicked things into high gear with “Big Time Sensuality.” This dancefloor monster resembles the soulful American house sounds of Crystal Waters and Ultra Nate in its original album mix, but for the single, it was revamped into a storming trance jam by remix duo Fluke. “Big Time Sensuality” became Björk’s biggest single yet, garnering copious club play, radio time and worldwide recognition via MTV. At the peak of its success, the Stéphane Sednaoui-directed video would be spoofed by British comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and critiqued by no less than Beavis & Butt-head!
Björk — “Big Time Sensuality”
French & Saunders spoof
Beavis & Butt-head
(Bjork bore no hard feelings about her public mocking. Per an AOL interview with the singer in November of 1995, she was “honored” by the attention.)
Where does one go from there? Björk pretty much went into full-tilt promo from that point, touring the world, making live appearances in clubs across Europe and basically becoming the most visually interesting pop superstar since RuPaul. After watching this one-of-a-kind live performance from the MTV Europe Music Video Awards, was it any wonder Madonna would go on to hire Nellee Hooper and commission a song from Björk herself?
“Big Time Sensuality” at the 1994 MTV Europe Video Music Awards
Debut generated one final single, in early 1994: album standout “Violently Happy.” The track’s darkly humorous clip was helmed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who also took Debut’s iconic cover photo. Call us loonier than a Björk video, but we still get a thrill out of this bizarre love song’s stalker-ish message, an anthem for the Single White Female set if ever there was one. Also, could this clip have provided future wig-spiration for Charli XCX?
Björk — “Violently Happy”
For me, most of Debut’s charm lay in its ability to surprise, and that charm is still intact all these years later. Although the set’s dance tracks hold up well — and will always destroy the fragile dancefloor of my heart — my true favorites are the ones that let Björk’s jazzy tendencies come out to play. “Aeroplane” has a playfu-yet-melancholy quality, its romantic longing dipping in between swinging sax solos. “The Anchor Song” brings to mind 1960s Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico with its sparse description and raw delivery. The biggest surprise of these more subdued tracks, however, is “Like Someone In Love,” Björk’s tribute to former movie musical ingenue and ‘70s talk show hostess Dinah Shore…
Dinah Shore — “Like Someone in Love” from the 1945 musical Belle Of The Yukon
Amazingly, the album spawned a slew of remixes before such a thing became de riguer, many of them from notable house producers David Morales, Masters At Work and French maestro Dimitri From Paris. Dimitri’s early mix of “Human Behaviour” was thrown in le trash after one listen by the artist herself, but I can’t help feeling she dropped the ball on this one. With its snappy beat and ridiculously fluffy notions, it captures the kind of house-y zeitgeist most of Debut was going for.
“Human Behaviour” (Le French Touch Remix)
As she grew as an artist, Björk distanced herself somewhat from Debut, rightfully noting that she could and would do better. It eventually went Platinum in the States, and continues to be a favorite of dance-pop aficionados, if not hardcore Björk stans. But none of that seems to faze the bravely progressive artiste.
We totally recognize the impulse to cringe at one’s youthful past (see also: Dannii Minogue, The Early Years) but we hope one day she’ll come around and re-embrace this gorgeous, mohair-tufted thing she made. After all, it takes courage to enjoy it.