I first became aware of Bjork Gudmundsottir when she was fronting the Sugarcubes, a new-wave dance-pop band out of Iceland. I was sufficiently intrigued by this to pay closer attention, if only because I'd never heard of an Icelandic new-wave dance-pop band before. I liked the Sugarcubes, though not overmuch; I felt they were not unlike a lot of what I was hearing on the radio at the time. When I heard that Bjork had split from the band and was now pursuing a solo career, I assumed she would release a couple of decent albums of forgettable dance-pop, then fade into obscurity.
Serves me right for making assumptions. The album she released, the appropriately-titled Debut, turned out to be one of the best albums released in 1993, a strong, energetic collection of songs, full of emotional colors and shadings, showing off Bjork's vocal, lyrical, and musical versatility to powerful advantage. It began an impressive solo career that continues to this day, and shows no signs of slowing down. This is one of the albums that showed me there's more to music than straight-ahead four-to-the-floor rock and roll, and it's one of the few albums from that era that I still listen to regularly. The reasons are songs like the following:
* The eerie, haunting "Human Behavior," with its alien's point of view lyrics and shifting percussion sounds, which has the nerve to let tympani hold and carry the bass line - nervier still was that this was the album's first single;
* "Crying," a powerfully sung, more traditional tune - if a song that veers from electronica to techno to synthpop, juxtaposing programmed beats with "organic" ones, can be called "traditional";
* "Venus As a Boy," which juxtaposes erotic lyrics with sweet orchestrations, violins and chiming keyboards underscoring the sensuality/carnality of lyrics like "he's exploring/the taste of her/arousal/so accurate..." - sung with such clarity and purity that one barely connects the lyric with its meaning;
* Bjork loves to juxtapose; how else to explain placing side-by-side the punchy, techno-pop "There's More to Life Than This" with the old standard, "Like Someone in Love"? Here we see how truly daring Bjork can be; to go from the pulsing electronic beats and thumping bass of "Life" to the minimalist vocal and harp in "Like Someone in Love" is something lesser artists wouldn't dare try. Bjork handles it like it's nothing out of the ordinary, then goes on to the bumping, grinding, growling bounce of "Big Time Sensuality."
More wonders follow: the trancelike "One Day" and "Aeroplane"; the sultry envelopment of the bass-driven "Come to Me"; "Violently Happy," a scarifying song about being so in love, it leads the singer to "stand by the ocean/make it roar at me/and I roar back," and later to "daring people/to jump off roofs with me/only you/can calm me down..." Now that's love!
If there's one flaw here, it's "The Anchor Song," which seems atonal and out of place among the other amazing songs here. It's not bad by any means, but neither is it up to the standards of the rest of the album. In my opinion it's a weak note on which to close.
The single element that holds these disparate songs together, turns them into a cohesive collection of songs, is Bjork's voice. She has been blessed with an amazing instrument in those vocal cords of hers, wide in range and dynamics, able to build from a whisper to a roar -- and then right back down to a whisper again. Bjork uses her voice as a trumpet or flute player might, to provide colorations of sound and emotion that would otherwise be absent, in the hands of lesser singers. In "Crying" she belts high notes, one after the other, raising the hair on the back of your neck with every one; in "Come to Me," she lulls you, calms you, seduces you; in "Big Time Sensuality" she grunts, moans, growls, and howls, sings scat - and even meows like a cat at one point! She moves effortlessly from joy to anxiety, to anger, to ecstasy...sometimes, all in the space of one note. And listening to her, you can tell that she loves every minute of it. Nowhere is this more evident than in "Like Someone in Love," when she comes for a second time to the line, "sometimes the things I do astound me," - and you can hear the smile in her voice as she sings it.
She not only astounds herself, she astounds a lot of other people as well, myself included. Debut is an amazing album, from an amazing singer - and what's most amazing at all is that her subsequent albums are even better and more varied than this one. If you know about Bjork's work, then I'm preaching to the converted here; if you don't, then give her a try. If you care about music at all - not rock music, not dance music, not experimental music, but just plain all around good music - Bjork is an artist who should absolutely be in your CD collection.