All hail the ice queen

As Bjork releases an extraordinary career retrospective, it's time to crown her as the most important pop musician of her generation.

Topics: Music, Iceland,

All hail the ice queen

In 1993, the former lead singer of the Sugarcubes, a popular alternative rock band from Iceland, released an album called “Debut.” So began the most extraordinary musical trajectory of the decade. Ten years later that singer, Björk, is the queen of contemporary music. She has released four solo albums, each one expanding the bounds of what seems possible in popular music. In my experience, no other active musician inspires as much respect in other musicians. A forthcoming documentary titled “Inside Björk” features testimonials from artists as diverse as Thom Yorke, Missy Elliott, Elton John and religious composer John Taverner.

But for all that, Björk remains curiously isolated, her music more loved than influential. Radiohead, probably her closest rival in the intersection of popularity and critical acclaim that makes up at least one definition of greatness, has spawned countless baby Radioheads. Björk has no copycats, no one feeding so obviously off her achievements, because those achievements are so alien. Radiohead is very much of our time, the musical zeitgeist for the millennium, but Björk and her music come from a different time and place. There are two options in placing Björk: Either she is an anomaly, brilliant but finally irrelevant, or she is the most important and forward-looking musician of her generation. In either case, we will need to wait 50 years to really make sense of what she has done, and absorb her influence in any useful way.

Over the course of the summer, One Little Indian Records has been releasing a series of eight Björk-related DVDs, ranging from live concerts to music video collections to documentaries, along with a box set of four live-concert CDs, with each disc corresponding to one of her studio albums (that is, containing the same songs in the same order). This glut of new material comes only half a year after Elektra released the “Family Tree” box set, an idiosyncratically curated career retrospective on one full-length and five 3-inch CDs.

Retrospective projects of this size are normally reserved for dead jazz musicians or canonical classical composers. For a 36-year-old pop star with a mere four solo albums to her name to get this kind of treatment is unprecedented. Even more extraordinary, no one is likely to complain about it: If any other active pop musician (excepting, perhaps, living legends like Bob Dylan or Neil Young, with decades of strong material behind them) were to attempt a similarly grandiose project, it would be taken as an act of unforgivable hubris.



The world of alternative popular culture is none too tolerant of success, as Wilco, the Strokes and even Radiohead have recently discovered, with waves of faddish discontent emanating from Manhattan, leaving no hipster unaffected. But Björk has enjoyed 10 years of uncommonly smooth sailing with nary a backlash in sight. Since striking out on her own in 1993, she has managed to retain complete indie credibility and alterna-cool while still selling millions of records. This is an extraordinary achievement in a world where the two are seen as incompatible. The modern-day parable of Kurt Cobain’s life is the ultimate cautionary tale: The strain between art and commerce was too much for him. Not only does Björk seem unlikely to kill herself, she projects an air of almost enchanted contentment.

One reason that Björk has so successfully escaped criticism is that she escapes the confines of genre. Bands are too often criticized not for their own shortcomings, but for the shortcomings of whatever genre or movement they are perceived to represent. If you’re fed up with the New York rock revival, take it out on the Strokes; if you think that grunge lost its authenticity, go after Pearl Jam. Björk’s music refuses to fit snugly into any genre. Some tracks on her first album, “Debut,” could be called club and some from her second album, “Post,” come close to trip-hop. Otherwise her music exists in more or less uncharted territory. There are, of course, other musicians of whom this is true, but few have had success at all comparable to Björk’s. What is more unusual is that her music can’t effectively be described as a mixture of genres. The work of even the most iconoclastic musicians can usually be approximated with a kind of a + b + c = x (Tom Waits = Tin Pan Alley + Kurt Weill + carnival). No such equation is remotely convincing when it comes to describing Björk’s music.

What kind of music is she making, then? There are a number of possible answers. None of them is entirely satisfying, but each is at least partially illuminating. A friend of mine suggests that she is actively trying to figure out what pop music will be like in 30 years. I would half-seriously propose that she’s making a new kind of Icelandic classical music. This is an answer that Björk herself has hinted at. She discusses her 10 years of conservatory training as an experience of being “force-fed German composers.” Against that, she sets her own desire “to invent a new Icelandic modern musical language.”

Another possible answer, of course, is that she’s just a clubby pop musician who has bent the rules of the genre far enough to appear unique, causing critics like me to wax rhapsodic about nothing much. In the end, pigeonholing gets us nowhere. Rather than trying to provide a definitive answer to this perplexing question, I’ll attempt to outline, as simply as I can, her musical achievements.

It seems impossible to start with anything other than that voice. “Childlike,” “feral,” “alien”: All three words have been used repeatedly in describing her pipes, and their apparent incompatibility alone gives some sense of just how unusual the sound is. Billie Holiday’s voice famously combined childishness with world-weary wisdom. Björk has pushed the paradox a little further, combining childishness with ferocity and unbridled sexuality.

She is a true virtuoso vocalist, the likes of whom popular music has rarely seen. Her operatic range and seemingly effortless pitch control have been demonstrated not only in her own music, but in her performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s notoriously difficult “Pierrot Lunaire.” Her voice can be perfectly clear, and she often phrases in an intentionally tentative way, bringing the childlike quality of her singing to the fore. But that can be undercut immediately by an extraordinary guttural sound, as if the note were too fragile to support the energy coming out of her body. It is a sound no child could ever make.

Aside from her singing, it’s the production on her albums that has garnered Björk the most praise. She is viewed as a true sonic innovator, one who has extended the frontiers of music in general, and electronic music in particular, with each new release. There’s no question that the sonic worlds that Björk has created for her albums are entirely distinctive, but there are two qualifications that should be kept in mind. The first is that this element of her work has been deeply collaborative.

She has worked with some of the most innovative producers and programmers in electronic music, including Nellee Hooper, Marius de Vries, Graham Massey, Mark Bell, Tricky, Howie B and Matmos. The second is that, contrary to much of what has been written, her talent is less for creating new sounds than for recombining existing sounds in new ways. On “Homogenic,” string octet and accordion are combined with volcanic electronic beats, to create a desolate, apocalyptic soundscape. On “Vespertine” she took the sterile clicks and crackles of Powerbook improvisers, and built them into a comforting cocoon of sound, embellished with music boxes and harps. She has consistently taken sounds from the far fringes of electronic and experimental music and used them in her own music. Rarely has a mainstream artist relied so heavily, and so successfully, on the avant-garde.

While Björk has been, if anything, overappreciated as a sonic innovator, she has been underappreciated as a songwriter. She is the only major songwriter in recent memory for whom the apparently inescapable influence of Bob Dylan is irrelevant. Her lyrics stand out for a simple reason: They don’t rhyme. Other songwriters have experimented with nonrhyming lyrics, of course, notably Lou Reed and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, but it remains an unusual technique.

In this regard, popular song lags far behind poetry: If Cole Porter is Alexander Pope, effortlessly tossing off his couplets, then we have progressed perhaps as far as the Victorian era, gingerly testing out off-rhymes and unusual line breaks. But there is Björk, sprinting ahead to tear the conventions apart, as if T.S. Eliot had been dropped among Tennyson, Arnold and Browning. (A better analogy might be Emily Dickinson, who did write in the Victorian era, who did shatter many of poetry’s conventions and whose crystalline constructions display a definite kinship to Björk’s … but nobody bought her records.)

This is partly a matter of courage (or foolishness) on Björk’s part, simply choosing not to rhyme where anyone else would, but it is also that she often phrases her melodies in a way that seems not to call for rhyme. Pop music songs are almost always written in clear, regular phrases, all of the same length, that are further locked together with rhyme. Writers who tinker with that construction, as Burt Bacharach and Hal David did, by dropping or adding measures, pushing and pulling the melodic lines so that they don’t fit together quite so squarely, often use rhyme as a glue to hold their relatively flimsy structures together.

Björk is different in that she does not tinker with the structure, she discards it. This is not equally true of all of her work, or of all elements of her songwriting — “Venus as a Boy,” for example, has fairly standard melodic phrases, and she often sticks to the verse-chorus structure of popular song — but for the most part she is working from a different template. Her phrases are anything but regular; rather than a series of four-bar phrases, she might have one of three followed by two of five, finished with one of four.

Even more singular, her melodic phrases often display little or no connection to the beats beneath them. The melodies themselves are often developed through motifs, with short phrases repeated and elaborated, in a manner more similar to Brahms than to other popular songwriters. Björk’s 10 years of conservatory training show here — the influence of the composers she despised is clearly in evidence. Listen to the opening of “Hidden Place” from “Vespertine”: The verse melody is a four-note motif, resolved differently each time. It repeats more frequently as it becomes more agitated, never matching up comfortably with the beat beneath it. Finally, it snowballs into the chorus.

Because of these irregular melodic phrases and unrhymed lyrics, it always takes a moment to adjust to Björk’s songs. They can sound clumsy at first, strangely forced, unfocused or simply incomprehensible. The end result, though, is that her music has a freshness, an air of the unexpected, that is unusual. In most pop songs, an attentive listener can pick up the basic structure almost immediately. Consciously or not, he or she anticipates the rhymes, the call and response of the phrases. Björk’s songs keep even the most exacting listeners a little off balance. There are no rhymes to guess at, no way of predicting what will come next. They force you to listen intensely.

And it’s worth listening intensely, not just to the music, but to the words as well. Her lyrics are often reminiscent of e.e. cummings; deeply felt emotions, always tempered by a dash of cheekiness. They can be exhilarating (“I’m no fucking Buddhist/ but this is enlightenment”), touching (“since we broke up/ I’m wearing lipstick again/ I’ll suck my tongue/ as a remembrance of you”), morbid (“I imagine what my body would sound like/ slamming against those rocks/ and when it lands/ will my eyes/ be closed or open?”), observant (“I thought I could organize freedom/ how Scandinavian of me”), and disarmingly intimate (“He slides inside/ half awake half asleep/ we faint back into sleephood/ when I wake up a second time in his arms/ gorgeousness, he’s still inside me”). She likes to fold personal material into the realm of fairy tales, so that everything becomes mythic. The entire lyrics of “Unravel” are “While you are away/ my heart comes undone/ slowly unravels/ in a ball of yarn/ the devil collects it/ with a grin/ our love/ in a ball of yarn/ he’ll never return it/ so when you come back/ we’ll have to make new love.”

It is mystifying that Björk has had such success with such unconventional songwriting. She has produced her share of catchy choruses, to be sure (“Hyperballad,” “Venus as a Boy”), but even hardcore Björk fans would be hard-pressed to hum most of her songs. Even in some of her more accessible material, there are surprises in store: The melody to “Human Behavior,” her first single, is in an entirely different key from the bass line.

Björk’s writing often reminds me of Richard Wagner, who was once called “the greatest master of the miniature” (an ironic designation, given that his compositions sometimes stretched toward five hours) because of the occasional hugely memorable moments (“catchy” is officially out of bounds in discussing classical music) that punctuate the many hours of less easily grasped melody. Björk’s songs have a similar mix of catchy moments scattered through more or less abstruse melodies: Few people know how the melody for “Big Time Sensuality” starts, but anyone who watched MTV in the early ’90s could cheerfully belt out the single measure when she sings the words “big time sensuality.”

Her other secret is her weirdness: Björk is not a pop star with whom we “identify” in the usual sense. It seems only fitting that we don’t sing along with her melodies. Listening to U2, we sing along with Bono, even if only internally; listening to Björk, we sit back and allow ourselves to be amazed.

The quality of music alone can never explain success on the level that Björk has enjoyed it, and indeed her allure extends in a number of nonmusical directions. There is her elfin beauty (the adjective is as persistently attached to Björk as “luminous” is to Cate Blanchett), her seemingly inexhaustible youth and her outlandish fashion sensibility. There are her relationships with stars like Goldie and Tricky, and her current liaison with artist Matthew Barney. There is her accent, an occasionally incomprehensible blend of Icelandic and Cockney, with some Scottish R’s rolled in for good measure, that lends every song and interview an unmistakable air of the exotic. There was her courageous performance in Lars von Trier’s heartless, inhumane film “Dancer in the Dark.” All this aside, I think that Björk is an important figure for symbolic reasons. To explain this, we need to return to her dealings with technology.

The idea of a struggle between man and machine is one that currently enjoys an extraordinary resonance, as the impact of the “Matrix” movies has made clear. Many of the most popular and acclaimed contemporary musicians have addressed this struggle, or at least toyed with it. Cher, Madonna and the vocoder set seem to be hinting at the idea of a bionic woman, merging themselves with electronics. Radiohead has used electronics in a particularly ominous and threatening way, constructing a sonic prison for singer Thom Yorke, heightening the sense of isolation and alienation that was already at the center of the band’s music.

Björk has consistently been at the forefront of electronic exploration in music, often constructing entire tracks with nothing but digitally created sounds. As a possible measure of how much she relies on electronics, it is worth noting that there is not a single guitar or electric guitar in her solo catalog. But the electronics never overwhelm the organic power of her voice. They are like a toy in her hands — an immensely powerful toy, but one that never seems threatening. Her wholehearted embrace of electronics, combined with her unquestioned dominance of them, makes her our most optimistic musician, blasting the matrix apart.

The repackaging and anthologizing that Björk is now undertaking is unprecedented, but it isn’t out of character. Her four studio albums have already been accompanied by a huge array of remixes, special editions, books and so on. This volume of extra material bespeaks Björk’s own desire to make sense out of her career, to give it a definite shape and trajectory. The “Family Tree” box set seemed to propose one way of framing her career, with the content divided into four sections, to coincide with what she claims are the four “chambers” of her being: Roots, “the ancient things in us”; Beats, “our craving for modern times”; Strings, “our struggle with education and all things academic”; and Words. (We all know she’s leaving out that important fifth chamber of her being: Swans, “our craving to wear a bird as a dress.”)

Taken together, these four were supposed to add up to a picture of who Björk is, musically and personally. The covers of her albums, each one with a picture of Björk, propose a narrative of rising confidence (and divinity) — on “Debut” she’s a shy, introverted girl; on “Post,” a confident force to be reckoned with; on “Homogenic,” a kind of cross-cultural warrior/goddess; and on “Vespertine,” a delicate, unearthly spirit. In interviews, Björk herself has stressed the way in which each album corresponds to a different character. The music itself tells a story of someone less tied down to the conventions of the world with each release.

These releases are a chance for the world, not least Björk herself, to take stock of her past achievements. Unlike the four studio albums, or the “Family Tree” box set, they present no clear narrative and no carefully shaped career. Rather, they aim to give some sense of the scope of her vision, of the amount of ground she’s covered over the last 10 years. There’s the live box set, which demonstrates just how far she’s stretched her songs in performance. There’s the “Volumen” DVD, which collects 21 of her groundbreaking music videos. Perhaps best of all, there’s a DVD of her 2001 concert at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House. I was lucky enough to be there, and the show she put on, with the help of harpist Zeena Parkins, electronics duo Matmos, a 12-piece Inuit choir and a 56-piece orchestra, was a rare and beautiful thing.

For all the pleasures of this material, it’s worth remembering that not only is this an anomaly in the pop world, it is something that not even the most prestigious living jazz musicians or classical composers have found it necessary to produce. Most musicians are constantly moving on, displaying little interest in albums from five or 10 years ago, but Björk is presenting the last decade of her life and work in all its multimedia glory. This puts me more in mind of the art world than the music world. Specifically, it reminds me of the show that her boyfriend, artist Matthew Barney, put on earlier this year at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Barney has essentially spent his time since graduating from Yale creating one, massive piece: his five “Cremaster” films, with accompanying sculptures and props. Björk now counters with her four albums, along with accompanying remixes and live concerts. Both are presenting their work as something to be taken as a whole or not at all. It’s not clear whether these productions are just the foibles of a very odd couple indeed, or if they represent a trend in art: increasingly unconstrained by specific media or genre, increasingly grandiose and centering on the vision of a single mind. It’s impossible to know. But I suspect that here as well Björk is showing us the way into the future.

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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