The Guide to Getting Into Björk
The Icelandic songwriter now has nine major studio albums, two soundtracks, and eight live albums, not to mention a grip of remixes. Couple that with her over-the-top persona and presentation and it can be hard to know where to start.
This article originally appeared on Noisey.
There was once a time where Björk thought she might not ever release a solo album. She said as much to SPIN Magazine in 1993, on the eve of the release of her first solo record, the aptly titled Debut. In the late 80s and early 90s, she stood most recognizably at the helm of a buzzy alt-rock ensemble from her native Iceland by called the Sugarcubes. But at 27, prompted by the idea that “time was running out,” she released some of the more insular songs she’d been accumulating over the years. “My little songs were such a private thing,” she said at the time.
In the years since, of course, her music has become very public. Since that interview, she’s released nine studio albums, and has performed across the entire globe virtually ad infinitum. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her song “I’ve Seen It All,” which she performed on national television, wearing a Marjan Pejoski dress made to look like a swan. There as a MoMA retrospective of her entire career. If, as she says, playing in the Sugarcubes—going on “holidays abroad to be a ‘rock band’”—was as she said in 1993, “like a joke,” her solo career has been one long last laugh.
But a list of accolades barely captures any of the strange joy of her work, which exists in the contrasts—starting with the fact that she’s been able to process these very private songs in public. She’s sung, over the years, of the blooming love and her painful public uncoupling with artist Matthew Barney, of ecological catastrophe, of existential turmoil. To follow her work is to watch her figure out how to deal with herself on the world’s stage, and to turn even the most painful, awkward, and unsettling moments into grand, colorful, futuristic pop songs that are bolder than just about anyone else has ever made.
If there’s ever been any struggle for people to connect with that, it’s been because, well, there’s a lot of ephemera too. She’s taken over the years to performing behind veils or facial prosthetics, adopting alien and avant drag iconography that can obscure the white-hot emotional core of the music. To my ears, that stuff has only served to underscore the personal elements, the bare emotional stuff stands in greater contrast when coupled with colorful costumes and music videos featuring robots tenderly caressing one another. (I was, for example, incredibly moved by the occasionally maligned virtual reality music videos for Vulnicura—the techno-trickery made the alienation she expressed in the lyrics feel even more potent.)
But I get it, that stuff’s easily mocked, as is the way her voice dips and dives. If you look just at these outer layers and ignore the private songs at the heart of the whole thing it’s easy to miss the point entirely. There’s a reason her MoMA retrospective wasn’t terribly well received—take the strange costumes away from the context and it all becomes a little confusing.
Now that she’s released Utopia, her latest collection of songs exploring the flowering of love in the modern age, there’s even more stuff to check out—so we’re here to help you find your way through the occasionally strange, and always moving catalog she’s built over the years.
So you want to get into: Emotional Cartographer Björk?
In a catalog full of crushing lyrics about the confusion and ecstasy of interpersonal entanglements, no single one sums up Björk’s general mission than an oft-quoted excerpt “Jóga”: “Emotional landscapes / They puzzle me.” She rarely ever comes to solutions for her turmoils, but she’s incredibly adept at tracing the strange contours of her inner states—making detailed maps of those sprawling spaces that confound her
That’s what she meant, I think, when she said her songs were “private,” that over the years her best songs have been really detailed documents of her secret thoughts. Poring over them, you know intimately her deepest desires and long-held fears, her points of strength and the feelings that rip her apart. She’s always written these songs unflinchingly—but never more so than on Vespertine and Vulnicura, a pair of records recorded nearly a decade and a half apart that document the flowering and death of her relationship with Barney. Listening to them in quick succession is both uplifting and brutal. Songs like “Pagan Poetry” and “Undo” show the power of opening yourself up and letting the world in, but “Black Lake” comes years later as a reminder of how doing so leaves you vulnerable to emotional devastation. But even outside of those two records, she’s constantly recording these sorts of songs, engaging in vibrant, unflinching self-portraiture.
The trick of any intensely personal art is that it’s a mirror for the observer as well as the creator. It’s hard not to find things to relate to as she sings of handling romantic dissolution as a realist (like on “You’ve Been Flirting Again”) or of finding a glimmer of passion even as it fades with time (like “The Dull Flame of Desire). She writes with empathy and compassion, both for others and for herself.
Playlist: “Jóga” / “Undo” / “Pagan Poetry” / “Blissing Me” / “Black Lake” / “I’ve Seen It All” / “The Dull Flame of Desire” / “Desired Constellation” / “You’ve Been Flirting Again” / “Venus As a Boy”
So you want to get into: Pop Star Björk?
She may be an experimentalist with a taste for outré collaborators, but some of Björk’s more moving moments are rooted in pop songcraft. Even at her most out-there, she’s able to wrangle her experiments into something recognizably song-shaped. Occasionally, that’s even meant actual pop success. Both the pseudo-house rave-up of “Big Time Sensuality” and the chattery “Earth Intruders” snuck into the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, and 2007’s Volta peaked at #7 on the album chart.
There’s an unshakable ecstasy in songs like “Hyperballad” and “Violently Happy” that provide similar charms to usual radio fare, melodies that worm parasite like past your inner ears, wriggling alien-like somewhere near your cerebellum. But there’s something stranger that makes her songs take even deeper root too. Rather than surrounding her voice with the saccharine synth work that’s attended the last several decades of pop music, she’s stewed in an unsettling mix of electronic music’s outer realms: grayscale techno, new agey ambience, heads-down drum and bass, and more. This has the added effect of helping her hooks standout even more—neon seems even brighter in a darkened room.
Playlist: “It’s Oh So Quiet” / “Big Time Sensuality” / “Hyperballad” / “Army of Me” / “Hidden Place” / “Bachelorette” / “Alarm Call” / “Stonemilker” / “Violently Happy”
So you want to get into: Vocal Acrobat Björk?
There’s a six-and-a-half-minute YouTube video called “Bjork Super Notes and Screams” that functions as just about as good an intro to her music as any full-length record. Over the course of its short runtime, it runs through 13 moments from her catalog that seem pretty much impossible. In clips from performances both live and in studio she warps her voice into absurd, inhuman shapes. She squeaks and squelches and fries her voice in ways both upsetting and beautiful
These sorts of moments are even more affecting in context. Her voice is always an interesting thing, often swinging and scatting through swooping melodies that are contorted enough that most other singers wouldn’t attempt them (there’s a reason both Rolling Stone has counted her among the best vocalists ever). But these reveries are punctuated by these powerful, pained notes that hit like joy buzzers. It barely even matters if they come attached to any specific semantic meaning, just that they’re being issued from human vocal chords is chilling enough. There’s this way she blows out almost every performance of “Big Time Sensuality” that turns its frank depiction of sexual pleasure into something more rawly emotional—it’s ecstatic, but somehow devastating too as you hear her only just barely keeping her voice in the sandpaper-scuffed tone she somehow forces it into.
But that’s only just one of the many times she does stuff like that, virtually every song has its own sort of “how does she do that?” moment in its vocal. Her newest record opens with a track called “Arisen My Senses” where she basically layers five of these impossible takes at once. The human voice theoretically has limits to the amount of timbres it can produce, but apparently Björk’s doesn’t.
Playlist: “Arisen My Senses” / “All Is Full of Love” / “Human Behavior” / “Big Time Sensuality” (Live MTV Unplugged) / “Cocoon” / “Oceania” / “Possibly Maybe”
So you want to get into: Production Tinkerer Björk?
For some, it took an eye-opening interview with Pitchfork in 2015 to give Björk credit as the sonic architect of her own records (never underestimate the press’, and by extension the public’s, willingness to foist attention on whatever man is in the room). But pretty much from the very beginning, her records have been shaped by her willingness to take bold experiments in the production. Early on, that meant working with some of dance music’s biggest thinkers to shape a still-unique blend of ambient music, techno, and trip-hop tropes that exploded the templates of what electronic music songwriting can be. Homogenic and Vespertine still especially sound like the future even after two decades of imitators.
But even outside of the way she toyed with musical grammars, she’s also been an early adopter and experimenter with new musical technologies. Medulla saw her taking apart organic sounds, resampling and twisting sounds to make orchestras and staticky instruments out of the human voice. For Vespertine she commissioned the building of several giant transparent music boxes for which she arranged circuitous melodies that gave the record its haunting chill. On Biophilia, she used a software that’s most famous for its Auto-Tune to craft unexpected harmonies (for what it’s worth she also said she did much of the conceptualizing of this record pictographically—meaning that parts of songs like “Thunderbolt” and “Crystalline” had scores that resembled their subject matter).
She also commissioned the building of several new instruments, including a 30-foot-tall contraption dubbed a Gravity Harp, that gave the record some of its haunting whirrs and whistles. All of this to say, some of Björk’s songs have sounds you’ve never heard before, or at least not quite like this.
Playlist: “Triumph of a Heart” / “Thunderbolt” / “Crystalline” / “Stonemilker (Vulnicura Strings Version)” / “Solstice” / “Frosti” / “Paradisia”
So you want to get into: Dancefloor Björk?
Proper tours have become something of a rarity for Björk as her stage shows have become more ambitious and unwieldy. But if you want to catch her IRL you still have plenty of chances thanks to her newfound affinity for stepping behind the decks and spinning her favorite records that inhabit the weirder corners of the dancefloor. Lately that’s meant a lot of the work of her recent co-producers and their friends—like Arca, Rabit, Kelela and Serpentwithfeet—which isn’t exaclty the most traditionally club-friendly stuff out there, but Björk’s affinity for the dancefloor goes back decades at this point.
Much of Debut’s production—aided by Nellee Hooper, who’s also worked with Massive Attack and Madonna—leaned into a sort of high energy style indebted much more to the New York house music and England’s big tent rave culture of the era than anything she’d ever done before with the Sugarcubes. Over the years, she’s kept that strain alive in her work, working on her next record Post with Hooper and the trip-hop producer Tricky, then enlisting Matmos, 808 State’s Graham Massey, and Goldie, among many others from electronic music’s avant garde to give help her capture the sort of android atmosphere that’s come to define her instrumentals over the years.
This side of her work has also manifested in the handful of remix albums she’s issued over the years, in which her voice has been used as the centerpiece for blazing junglist tracks (as on Dillinja’s “Cover Me” remix and Goldie’s “Isobel” flip). She’s also proven her own ability to drag tracks into the dancefloor as a remixer herself, as on a trio of abstract reimaginings of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Stressed Out” that she produced.
There was a period in the wake of Vulnicura where it wasn’t uncommon to look over in a darkened and see Björk hanging out, wearing a colorful veil, and totally losing it as a noisy producer threw down at 2 am in some random Bushwick club space. Of course she’s found a way to weave that long-held affinity through some of her music.
Playlist: “Violently Happy” / “Who Is It” / “I Miss You” / “Courtship” / 808 State, “Ooops (feat. Björk)” / “Cosmogony (El Guincho Remix)” / “Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)”
So you want to get into: Live Björk?
Live recordings and bootlegs are usually the refuge of hoarders, completionists and superfans, but, as you may now realize, Björk isn’t quite like other artists. Never one to turn down the chance to rip everything up and start again, to explore every possible avenue an idea could have taken, she most often uses her live albums (she has one corresponding to each studio record) as a chance toy with the inner workings of her best known songs, occasionally retooling their entire emotional effect. Most recently, she released a recording of the set she was playing in the wake of Vulnicura, in which she played with a cadré of string players and Arca.
This necessitated some rejiggering of older pieces, including “Come to Me,” from Debut. Given the volatility of the period—she ended up cancelling some of the the live dates she planned, in part because emotional toll of singing songs about her breakup with Barney was too much—the warmth of the original is sapped out, leaving an frigid ballad, with Arca’s electronic cracks spiderwebbing across its icy surface. When she sings “You know that I love you,” it feels not like an assurance but a threat. She turns an old love song into a weapon, and that’s far from the first time she’s pulled such a transformation on one of these live records.
She once pushed “Declare Independence” even further into its anarchic electro-punk rallying cry and she remade “Big Time Sensuality” as a weightless breakbeat on Post Live. Virtually every one of her live records has a handful of these moments, which makes them valuable starting points for her catalog. You never know what exactly you’re going to get, and that’s the point.
Playlist: “Come to Me (Vulnicura Live Version)” / “Unravel (Vespertine Live)” / “Declare Independence (Voltaic Version)” / “Earth Intruders (Voltaic Version)” / “All Neon Like (Homogenic Live Version)” / “Anchor Song (Post Live)”