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Back when Björk was a Sugarcube, she melted hearts. Playing the bewitching Icelandic ingénue to co-vocalist Einar Orn’s trumpet-playing sight gag, Björk could light up stereos and concert stages through sheer star power. Even in her days as just one of the scraggly boys in the bandincluding in the pre-Sugarcubes Kukl and the pre-pre-Sugarcubes Tappi TíkarrassBjörk was an obviously gifted and otherworldly vocalist, capable of making sounds loud and mellow and, frequently, sounds strange and twisted, too. She shrieked! She wailed! She cleared her throat with reckless abandon! And then she made nice with the microphone, closing in on it with a breathy, sensual whisper while singing such bizarrely encrypted lines as “They’re smoking cigars/They lie in the bathtub/A chain of flowers,” the seemingly random, poetically disconnected images that close out “Birthday,” the signature tune from the ‘Cubes’ 1988 debut, Life’s Too Good.
When they were on, seemingly random and poetically disconnected were the ‘Cubes’ main modes, and Björk personified those qualities with considerable allure. A modern primitive who was both childlike and in charge, the singer was a mystery of a riddle wrapped inside the cutest alterna-waif of an enigma you ever saw. For indie boys of all stripesparticularly the ones who programmed college-radio stationsthat combination proved irresistible. Björk was totally crushworthy, and the ‘Cubes got their fair share of air- and videoplay when capital-A Alternative was just beginning to shine on the light-night dial.
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More than their fair share, in fact, considering the quality-control issues that marred the band’s take-or-leave (mostly leave) follow-ups, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! (1989) and Stick Around for Joy (1992), each of which suffered a steep decline in aural pleasure directly proportional to the prominence of the party-pooping Orn. As a singer and band “leader,” Orn was like the cool girl’s boorish boyfriend who doesn’t get invited to the party but disappoints everyone by showing up with her anyway. Drats. Foiled again. And again.
“Birthday” was the ‘Cubes’ finest moment, though, a loose-limbed, alterna-rock showpiece that featured many of the vocal mannerisms Björk would eventually pack into her own sophisticated avant-pop when she finally went solo. Musically, the track tiptoes down the thin line separating New Order from Joy Division, a wiry, single-string bass riff holding on for dear life against the massive attack of Björk’s voice, which might as well have been beamed in from deep space. Her singing is both arresting and seductive, wildly careening during one measure, softly caressing the next.
Some things never change: Björk’s voice is still an auditory paradox, a freak of a force of nature. But as a solo performer, the ex-‘Cube has been more interested in melting minds than hearts. Though her 1993 solo disc, Debut, was mostly a thinly produced false startwith the singer Svengalied into the small corner of a dance club by Soul II Soul man Nellee Hooper1995’s Post got just about everything right. Collaborating with a star-studded constellation of producers (Tricky, Howie B., and a let-me-try-that-again Hooper, among others), Björk turned in a genuine spellbinder of an album with a shelf life that still hasn’t expired. Organic and retrofuturistic, the LP immediately transcended the triphop and electronica movements within which it was meant to signify: Post marked the spot where Björk’s idiosyncrasies blasted through generic distinctions and sent top-grossers such as Madonna scrambling to pick up the bright and shiny shards of sound left amid all the pretty rubble.
So good was Post and so huge its receptionfueled by Björk’s star turns in the videos for “Army of Me” and, especially, “It’s Oh So Quiet,” the most spectacular three-and-a-half-minute Hollywood musical you’ll ever seethat Björk had to make the album twice: Telegram, its club-savvy successor, consisted entirely of remixes of the previous record’s songs. Almost inevitably, then, Post set the stage for all of Björk’s subsequent discs, including the new Vespertine, which is easily the most ethereal and interior album the singer has ever made. If in the past Björk has been alternately lauded and criticized for sounding like a siren from another galaxy, Vespertine suggests that that galaxy has been located in inner space all along.
The record opens with “Hidden Place,” a song about the melancholy pleasures of retreating into desire-tinged seclusion. “I’m so close to tears/And so close to simply calling you up/And simply suggesting/We go to that hidden place,” Björk sings in her trademark fits and starts. But she never makes the call (“I have been slightly shy,” she lies), hanging up the phone and instead roaming around in the playground in her mind, a synthetic garden of sound that’s no doubt decked out with lots of shiny plastic G4s and plenty of dust-covered Singer sewing machinesy’know, all the equipment you’d need for designing and then piecing together a certain Joan Rivers-mortifying swan dress that you might wear, say, to this year’s Academy Awards.
Or for making a record like Verspertine. As on her previous outing, Selmasongs (music from the movie Dancer in the Dark, in which the singer controversially starred), Björk threads synthesized Machine Age sound effects through her mostly machine-coded material. “Pagan Poetry,” for instance, erects a stately pleasure dome of chiming, vaguely Asian-sounding music on top of an insistent, Factory assembly line of a rhythmic pulse, while an inward-looking Björk discovers “a secret code carved/In a palm of fingers” between the song’s synthetic beats. “An Echo, a Stain” is a similar concoction, propelled along its dreamy way by something that sounds like sheet metal being folded back and forth.
Elsewhere, digitized raindrops keep falling on Björk’s head in the gently cathartic “Cocoon,” providing just enough percussive force to power puzzling lines such as “A train of pearls/Cabin by cabin/Is shot precisely/Across an ocean.” And on “Undo,” Björk makes like a Nina Hagen capable of subtlety, or, alternately, a Madonna capable of being alone with her thoughts for one single second. “It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill,” she sings, apparently about her own state of mind and sounding as if she’s trying very hard to convince herself that that’s true. It’s a difficult but lovely moment on an even lovelier record, one so light and airy you could blow it away with a kiss.
Back when Lloyd Cole and Happy Mondays were the competition, Björk and her Sugarcubes loaded up their skewed pop vignettes with plenty of angular, distortion-laden electric guitars and chaotic, pogo-worthy rhythmic attacks. Those are natural rock ‘n’ roll resources, of course, but not inexhaustible ones. Neither are the thick, hypnotic club beats with which Björk has been seducing listeners throughout her solo career. On Vespertine, the singer instead mines the center of her own enigmatic brain and strikes it rich yet again, uncovering one gorgeously jagged diamond of a record. CP