They’re terribly moody
And human behaviour
Then all of a sudden turn happy
But, oh, to get involved in the exchange
Of human emotions
Is ever so, ever so satisfying
-Björk, “Human Behavior”
Listening to Björk’s Debut in the context of her other records, as I did, provides several modes of interpretation. I was struck by how essentially Björk-y it sounded; from the very beginning, she seemed to have her own aesthetic that is consistent throughout all of her music even as they are all different in sound. It’s a little less polished of a record, and also doesn’t have the coherence of her later albums. Unlike Vespertine, for example, which has its own sonic signature and seems to be working with the same musical material, Debut seems to have three different threads running through it:
90’s Dance Pop: “Human Behavior” “Crying” “One Day” “Big Time Sensuality”
These songs show Björk at her poppiest, and although the dance beats in these songs will remain an important part of her music, I think they are transitional songs–Björk trying to distinguish herself from the other artists working with the same sounds. Even so, some of the Björk trademarks are here: her voice, and the special effects that she can make with it, is phenomenal, and her unconventional song structures and unique relationship between the beats and her melodies are featured here. I think that these songs have aged poorly, however, mostly because of the production. Some of the elements (the bass and snap hook in “Human Behavior,” the cheesy piano riff in “Crying”) are clearly intended to play with or deconstruct jingle/commercial music, or Broadway schmaltz, but it comes across as cheap and insubstantial, undermining the other content of the music (particularly in “Human Behavior”).
“Big Time Sensuality” is, in my opinion, the most successful of these tracks. The organ and synth is as cheesy as in the other tracks, however the hook is first rate. Björk really shows off her chops in this song, and the fluidity of the vocals in the verses have a spontaneous, almost improvised feel.
Mature Beats: “Violently Happy” “Venus as a Boy” “Come to Me” “Play Dead”
These songs seem to belong to a different record than the group of songs, and “Venus as a Boy” and “Play Dead” in particular could fit comfortably in Post, and possibly Homogenic. They contain some common elements to the group of songs above, but they are much more mature, much more polished, and are much more representative of Björk’s music taken as a whole. Although the sound is more full, with more bass and midrange instruments, the gauzy production creates a sound that is more intimate. The beats still sound very 90’s, but they are deeper, slower, more seductive.
“Venus as a Boy” stands as one of the very best songs of Björk’s career. The polyrhythmic pulse that runs through the song is like a slow heartbeat creating a deeply emotional, cyclical effect. The lyrics are both explicitly sexual (“he’s exploring/the taste of/ her arousal”) and almost non-sexual: the central metaphor in the refrain of the male object of desire as Venus is almost more of an aesthetic appreciation (“he believes in a beauty”) than a sexual one. And although the song is sung by a female to a male, the description of this eminently fuckable boy as Venus (the figure of ideal female beauty) adds a layer of sexual transgression that I, for one, find irresistible.
Art Music: “The Anchor Song” “Aeroplane”
This is perhaps the most surprising duo of songs on the record. They are distinguished by a saxophone trio that carries most of the musical information and incorporates jazz harmonies. “The Anchor Song” is spare, with only Björk’s voice and the saxophones. According to Alex Ross’ profile, Björk creates most of her music within the studio. I can hear that in her music, as in many of her songs there doesn’t seem to be a close coordination between the instrumental music and her vocal lines (for example, on “Big Time Sensuality,” the instrumental track is pretty static, only changing with different sections of the song. Björk’s vocals float over the beats, but they don’t change in response to each other.). “The Anchor Song” is different; there is an interplay between the voice and the saxophones that suggests a call-and-response structure. This is a song that could only have been through-composed (in fact, it reminds me of Michael Torke’s works for saxophone quartet).
“Aeroplane” takes that train of thought, incorporating it back into the gauzy, beat driven sound she used in the previous bloc of songs. This is one of the most sophisticated songs on the record. The different elements at play, her voice, the beats and bass, the saxophones, and the changes in rhythmic patterns, are carefully arranged*. Her method of fusing disparate musical ideas from different traditions will come back in full force in her 2007 album Volta.
*I’m referring to the album version of the song; the YouTube video above has a different live arrangement.
Outliers: “Like Someone in Love” “There’s More to Life Than This”
“Like Someone in Love” is a WWII-Great American Songbook-esque ballad accompanied only by a harp. While most of Björk’s music is rooted mostly in British dance music and different ethnic musical traditions, this is one of her (very) few naked imitations of American music. Another example is “It’s Oh So Quiet” from Post. One notable thing about these songs is that it completely proves that Björk could have a career singing any type of music she wants. I’d probably buy an album of Björk covers of 40’s and 50’s American pop.
“There’s More to Life Than This” falls pretty squarely into the 90’s Dance Pop category, except for two very interesting features. The first is a recurring refrain sung by female backing singers to the words “you know there’s more to life than this, you know there’s more to life.” That repeated refrain strongly suggests American funk or disco–a strain of music that’s almost completely absent from Björk’s musical DNA. While Björk engages with African-rooted music through jazz, percussion, and Brazilian music, there’s very little of the African (and -American) music that is prominent in American commercial forms like Disco, Soul, Hip-Hop, Rock, or Blues.
The other interesting feature of “There’s More to Life Than This” is the way that she uses the mix and reverb to create the special effect of singing directly to the listener. At 1:36 of the album version of the song, we hear the sound of the door closing, and all the instruments become muffled as if they were in another room. Björk’s vocal mix becomes very loud in the mix and the reverb becomes very dry. It creates the eerie effect that she has stepped into a room with you and is now singing right into your ear. It’s a very experimental move, and of a kind that I don’t think reappears in any of her other albums.
As you can see by the many references that I have to other albums, another way to think of this record is as a template of the kind of music that she is going to make for the next 15 years. While some of the material that she incorporates on later albums are not found in this one, a little bit of Debut is in every album.