Solid Gold: How Björk's 'Debut' demonstrated the endless possibilities of cross-pollination
Ben Cardew revisits Björk’s ‘Debut’ album which encompasses elements of rave, jazz, pop and so much more to explore how it laid the groundwork for her weird and wonderful career, and showed the world the endless possibilities of cross-pollination...
If the world Björk inhabits on ‘Debut’ sounds a little every-day for such an extraordinary star, its because Björk made it so. Of course, the concept of solo singer plus dance beats was hardly new back in 1993 when ‘Debut’ made its bow — Donna Summer would attest to that — but on ‘Debut’, Björk pioneered the idea of artist as auteur that would later be so integral to the success of Drake and Kanye West, to name but two.
‘Debut’ was not, in fact, Björk’s debut album; in 1993 she was a relatively well-known indie star, the singer of the curiously alluring Icelandic pop band The Sugarcubes. Nor was it her solo debut; that honor went to ‘Björk’, a mixture of covers and originals that the singer released back in 1977. But you can see why Björk would want to call her 1993 album ‘Debut’, as it marked a radical departure from the work of the Sugarcubes, a kind of creative re-birth that wiped the slate clean for Björk’s solo career.
Many of the songs on ‘Debut’ had been in Björk’s mind for years by the time it came to record the album. She had penned the delightful ‘Human Behaviour’ as a teenager, while ‘The Anchor Song’ and ‘Aeroplane’ appeared on a demo that she gave to Ásmundur Jónsson of Bad Taste and Derek Birkett of One Little Indian Records in the early ‘90s. And yet ‘Debut’ really came to life when Björk started to assemble her team of crack collaborators, starting with Graham Massey, who she had previously worked with on 808 State’s third album, ‘ex:el’.
At this point DJ Mag should be entirely clear. There has long been a tendency to think of the singer in the singer-plus-producer equation as being nothing more than a voice, the glittery sheen to the producer’s graft. This is emphatically not the case on ‘Debut’. Björk has a solo writing credit on five of the album’s 11 songs, she co-wrote five more with producer Nellee Hooper, and she has production credits on ‘The Anchor Song’ and ‘Like Someone in Love’, a 1940s jazz standard that is the album’s only cover version.
Björk was the driving force behind ‘Debut’, the creative genius who saw fit to bring together a rave icon (Massey), the producer behind albums from Soul II Soul, Sinéad O’Connor and Massive Attack (Hooper), a jazz harpist (Corky Hale), a jazz saxophonist (Oliver Lake) and a modish studio programmer (Marcus de Vries, who was apparently responsible for many of the synths and keyboards on ‘Debut’). Dig further into ‘Debut’ and you will also find trip-hop producer Howie B, Jhelisa Anderson on backing vocals, a sample from Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim (on ‘Human Behaviour’) and the indelible presence of Talvin Singh, who adds tabla beats to the Bollywood swoon of ‘Venus as a Boy’.
Writing in The Face, Mandi James called ‘Debut’ “a delightful fusion of thrash metal, jazz, funk and opera, with the odd dash of exotica thrown in for good measure,” while The New York Times found the influence of “early ‘70s jazz-fusion of bands like Weather Report.” But ‘Debut’’s versatility is such that you can see in it anything from hip hop to handbag house, depending on the way you cut it. To even envisage such a fusion is impressive. But to put it all together into 48 minutes of effervescent pop music that you can enjoy from start to finish is evidence of a sublime talent and vast musical imagination. Björk was never exactly a restrained performer, moving from the anarcho-punk of Kukl to The Sugarcubes’ oddball funk in the ‘80s. But ‘Debut’ felt like a creative explosion of all her musical ideas, as if this might be her only chance to shower the world in musical imagination.
Some 26 years on ‘Debut’ feels, at times, like a musical mirror to 1993, reflecting back the nascent progressive house beats then popular in clubland on ‘Violently Happy’ or ‘Big Time Sensuality’. At other times, though, the musical mixtures on ‘Debut’ feel strikingly original, as on the ambient Bollywood beats of ‘Venus as a Boy’ or the sparse, oceanic jazz of ‘The Anchor Song’. Impressively, for all the album’s twists and turns, it never feels like forced experimentation. When Björk shuts herself in the Milk Bar toilets to record the vocal for ‘There’s More To Life Than This’, for example, it feels like she just had to do it, her hushed vocals tones lifting the song’s sense of urgent joy.
Partially, this is thanks to the brilliant songwriting on ‘Debut’. While the album’s sonic mischief attracted the headlines, the 11 songs here (12 on the reissue, which adds ‘Play Dead’) are some of the decade’s very best, packed with universal emotion from the woozy lust on ‘Come To Me’ to the joyous explosion of ‘Violently Happy’, one of very few pop songs to capture the feeling of ecstatic release. ‘Venus as a Boy’, meanwhile, could be played on toothbrush and coat hook and still reduce an audience to tears. And above it all rides Björk’s sublime voice, a work of elastic harmony, otherworldly emotion, shocking versatility and jaw-dropping control.
To general surprise, ‘Debut’ proved a huge hit, with worldwide sales estimated to be close to five million. It paved a way for Björk to become one of the iconic artists of the modern world, a whirling dervish of creativity who, some 40 years after her debut, still seems capable of anything under the sun. That is the personal legacy of ‘Debut’.
For the world at large, meanwhile, ‘Debut’ proved that you could mix and match collaborators from pop music and the avant-garde and still come up with something that would get played on the radio, the kind of artist-as-curator approach that has enabled serial collaborators Drake and Kanye West to dominate the charts over the past decade. As such, you could make a claim to ‘Debut’ being the most influential album of the past 30 years. Not to mention the most downright joyfully eloquent.
Want more of our Solid Gold series? Check out our features on how 'Music For The Jilted Generation' turned The Prodigy from rave outsiders to festival headliners and how Prince's iconic 'Purple Rain' influenced electronic music.
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