Debut by Bjork
By Tyler Mandell | Top Tracks: Venus as a Boy, Big Time Sensuality, Human Behavior
Part of the fun of listening to an artist’s entire discography is seeing how they grow and evolve with their music and image over time. For example, listening to Bjork, the famous Icelandic avant-pop star, you find that her music started off much more accessible and poppy compared to her newer work. Compare any of her early 90s songs to anything from her new album Fossora, and you’ll find that her style and image is damn near unrecognizable. While she’s known for various eccentricities and groundbreaking experimental music, it’s important to consider her much more modest debut album, Debut. Fittingly titled.
This album came about when Bjork left alt-rock band The Sugarcubes, wishing to make music she was more interested in and wanting more artistic control. Debut is a stark departure from her old band, being a collection of dance-pop tracks that reek of the early 90s club scene. Though when I said Debut was more modest, I meant modest for Bjork: it’s still very quirky and tends to mix 90s dance music with other genres, such as jazz, folk, and orchestral music.
The opener “Human Behavior” is one of the best on the album and is a perfect encapsulation of Bjork’s appeal and talent. The lyrics are interesting and display her unique writing voice as well as her unusual but extremely impressive vocal inflections. Her voice is one of her best assets, not just for the range she has, but in how she uses it like an instrument. (Listen to “Big Time Sensuality” and pay attention to how she sings the lyrics “It takes courage to enjoy it.”) The song also incorporates great tribal drumming and just adds to an already great opener overall.
Most of the rest of side A is filled with infectious house songs like “Crying,” “There’s More to Life than This,” and “Big Time Sensuality.” While these songs do have a slightly dated feel to them, they all have a fun, punchy feel to them that makes them great to dance to. These songs could be criticized for being a bit derivative of 90s house but they’re too funky and likeable to really detract from, at least for me.
Side A does have some artsier moments on it, such as the best song on the album “Venus as a Boy.” Of all the tracks here, it feels the most like some of the more experimental songs that Bjork would explore on her later 90s albums. It mixes the burgeoning trip hop genre with a moody atmosphere inspired by South Asian classical music. Bjork’s voice sounds wonderful here, as well as on her cover of “Like Someone in Love,” which admittedly feels a bit out of place on Side A with its passionate chamber jazz. Still, it works as a soft ballad that features more emotional vocals from her.
However, I think Debut may suffer from being a bit frontloaded: a few of the songs in its second half feel uninspired or suffer from weak production. On the dance track “Violently Happy,” the way the techno beats and vocals are produced sound egregiously dated even if the song is still fun as a club song. Other songs like “One Day” and “Come to Me” aren’t bad but they lack memorable qualities and feel a bit uninspired, even if the latter has a nice jazzy, dreamy feel to it. All of these are good songs in general but they’re not deep cuts worth exploring.
The second half does have moments I really enjoy, like on the jazz-inspired cuts “Aeroplane” and “The Anchor Song.” The former feels like some of the world music she would later explore on Volta, with an adventurous feel to it and some great horns. The latter, as a closer, is the most introspective cut on the album, foreshadowing how personal her later albums like Vespertine and Vulnicura would be. Its jazz accompaniment really adds to the serenity of it all, with a typically exceptional performance from Bjork. Some of these songs make me wish Bjork did a full jazz album, as opposed to a couple of tracks inspired by jazz in her earlier work.
While not a perfect (ahem) debut by any stretch of the world, Bjork’s Debut is a damn good first album for one of the most eclectic and influential musicians on the planet. It may contrast heavily with her later works with its more mainstream-sounding nature, especially as Bjork has gone on record saying she could have done better with this album, but it has enough of Bjork’s personality, experimentation, and creativity to call for a listen. Even if she herself was disappointed with the album, she went on to prove herself several times afterward.