The name Björk evokes some worn images. He is the otherworldly artist whose album launches resemble large-scale art projects. She is the avant-garde fashion expert who smiled serenely in the “swan dress” at the 2001 Oscars. And yes, she is the eternal madwoman who sells a box of 14 handmade bird-shaped flutes to complement her 2017 album, Utopia.
But there’s a recognizable image that is often missing in all myth making: Björk in her 20s, a wide-eyed newcomer to London, still in the grubby nightclub when the lights come on.
Born Björk Guðmundsdóttir, the singer moved from her native Iceland to London in the early 1990s. Single in the big city with a young son, Sindri, the musician was eager for new experiences. London’s electronic music sound clash promised endless possibilities.
Björk went headlong into the city’s nocturnal world, sampling jungle, drum & bass, house and techno. Not all connected. “Ninety-five percent of the dance music you listen to today is crap,” he told Rolling Stone in 1993. “It’s just that experimental five percent that I like – records that are played in clubs after seven in the morning. when DJs play for themselves, instead of trying to please people. ”
Gradually, Björk met his people. He found kindred spirits in Graham Massey, founding member of Manchester acid house innovators 808 State, and Nellee Hooper, a sound system veteran known for his work with Soul II Soul. From this creative awakening Björk’s was born Debut, in 1993, and its surprising sequel, To send, who turned 25 this June.
In her formative years, Björk played in rock bands but was never a rock loyalist. Growing up in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík, she learned the country’s folk songs from her grandmother. After her parents divorced early in her life, Björk moved between the domains of her straight electrician father and free-spirited activist mother.
Despite the division of time between her parents, she has always been surrounded by music. His mother couldn’t afford an oboe, so Björk learned to play the flute. During the long walks to and from school, she honed her amazing singing voice. She released an album at age 11 and found success with Icelandic alternative rock group The Sugarcubes. (Her ex-husband and father of her son, Sindri, was the guitarist of the band.)
But Björk was dissatisfied, and Graham Massey of 808 State represented a new path. At Björk’s request, the two met in London to discuss the beats. She liked the non-commercial approach to electronic music she had honed in the Manchester acid house scene; he was terrified by her shivering voice. Björk had arrangements for two songs, “Army Of Me” and “The Modern Things”, which needed some leeway. They finished “Army Of Me” in an afternoon, with Björk fumbling on a pocket sequencer while Massey perfected a giant bass riff. (Meanwhile, Björk appeared as the lead singer on 808 State’s 1991 album, ex: theand took the band to Reykjavík to play the songs live.)
Björk also found a creative rhythm with Nellee Hooper, a former member of Bristol’s DJ collective The Wild Bunch turned GRAMMY-winning superproducer for the likes of U2, Sinead O’Connor and Gwen Stefani, among others. Björk and Hooper shared a vision for a complete concept, which would later become her aptly titled 1993 debut album, Debut. (“Army Of Me” and “The Modern Things” assisted by Massey were set aside for later use.) Produced only by Björk and Hooper, Debut she clearly broke the ties with the singer’s rock past and instead embraced trip-hop, house and synth-pop into her sound.
In the glow of Debut, Björk went deeper into London club culture. He wanted his next album to reflect the restless heartbeat and possibilities of his newly adopted home. “Most of the acts produced seven inches with disposable lyrics like, ‘Ooh, baby, baby,'” Massey told Paper Magazine in 1997. “But Björk took that culture and made an album with poetic lyrics. He left everyone speechless. He never tried to adapt to any electronic movement, he just took the ideas and made them personal. ”
That “poetic” album was To send. On the cover, Björk looks out of a Piccadilly Circus in London’s West End. His jacket, designed by the famous artist Hussein Chalayan, resembles a British air mail envelope. (Björk, a frequent shopper at the London acid house-inspired fashion store Sign Of The Times, already had stylist credibility.)
During the evenings, Björk had met Hooper’s friends, including Massive Attack collaborator Tricky and Scottish producer Howie B. With the help of her night cohort, Björk was determined to make To send much more rebellious than Debut.
Björk left the hustle and bustle of London to start working To send at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. The stories from those sessions are pure, pure Björk’s excess. He used extra long cables on the microphone and headphones to record by the ocean. She sang “Cover Me” in a cave full of bats. On a trip to Iceland, he swam in hot springs and admired glaciers with Tricky. (The couple dated briefly, but as Tricky bluntly told the namesake years later, “I wasn’t a good guy.”)
Back in London, Björk continued to refine To send, achieving a balance between organic sounds and machine-made elements. In the final stretch, he convinced Brazilian composer Eumir Deodato from semi-retirement to help fill in the sound. At the end, To send he was ready for the world.
Albums often open with something moody and instrumental to set the tone. To send it’s not that kind of album. From the start, “Army Of Me” is all about creaking propulsion, its shoulder-shrugging lyrics unleashed by Björk’s sometimes rebellious younger brother. (“It’s kind of a ‘big sister who says she’s not brother’s’ song,” she told Stereogum in 2008.)
From the jump To send refuses to sit still. It is not possible to easily group two tracks. “Hyperballad” is somehow a couple of songs in a five-minute package: equal parts of acid house and swollen chords of Deodato, with a virtuoso vocal performance that combines innocent wonder and furious catharsis.
There is no better example of the tonal changes from the “It’s Oh So Quiet” album to “Enjoy”. The former became the album’s biggest hit: its visual was nominated for Best Music Video, Short Form at the 1996 GRAMMY, along with a nod for Best Alternative Music Performance To send. But the glory of the awards was never in the plan. “It was the last song we did,” Björk told Stereogum of “It’s Oh So Quiet.” “Just to be absolutely sure the album was as schizophrenic as possible.”
All these years later, “It’s Oh So Quiet” remains an uninhibited thrill. While respecting Betty Hutton’s 1951 version, itself a powerhouse, the song’s ecstatic Björk-ness cuts the sound of the big band of the past, moving from whisper to stormy theatricality.
“Enjoy” then changes the setting from the war magazine to the Bristol basement club. Created with Tricky, who released her masterful debut album, Maxinquayand, in the same year, “Enjoy” is worn out and oppressive in the best way. In short: this is not a melody for a show.
In “Isobel”, written with the Icelandic poet Sjón, Björk reached, as he later said in Stereogum, a “mythical elevated state”. The song sounds like climbing a glacier and singing to the stars. But To send it never allows you to define Björk as an ethereal and unknowable elf. He also does “normal people” things, like getting too drunk and staying out until dawn. (The interviews with Hungover Björk were a theme from the mid-1990s. “I come from a country where since the age of 15 people drink a liter of vodka every Friday straight from the bottle,” he told SPIN in 1997.)
He also knows a breakup as complicated as anyone else. So from the astral plane of “Isobel” we go to “Maybe Maybe”, a lover, but still ironic and slow. Imagine it being sung late at night in a London apartment, away from the Bahamian heat.
“I Miss You”, the latest single released by To send, is the synthesis of all his wild instincts. There is so much here: horns, relentless percussion, a swaying, curving beat and Björk in blistering form. But the excess works. “Cover Me” and then “Headphones”, written as an ode to Graham Massey’s mixtapes, provide the album’s sweet return. With the silent final moments of Björk singing about sleep, you forget how furiously To send Start.
It is difficult to pinpoint Björk’s exact influence To send over the past 25 years. Always on the move, the 15-time GRAMMY nominee has never been defined by a single album.
After a 1996 nightmare, which included a fight with a reporter and a bomb threat from a stalker, Björk moved to Spain to record a sequel to To send. Released in 1997, the brilliant Homogeneous it was more unified and consciously Icelandic than its predecessors.
Homogeneous set a precedent for an artistic reinvention by the singer every few years. Consequently, other artists tend to credit the entirety of Björk’s production, rather than a single album, as a source of inspiration. Most shy away from his name altogether – citing a vast and singular talent like Björk can only invite unfair comparisons.
Since then over the decades To send, Björk got into the habit of working with artists she inspired. “That’s the good thing about being so obsessed with music,” he told the Evening Standard in 2016, “you always have other nerds who are obsessed too. He’s a bit ageless.”
In recent years, these collaborators have included experimental electronics producers The Haxan Cloak and Arca, as well as the original art-pop ANOHNI. During his many creative collaborations, Björk fought against sexist notions of fatherhood. “It’s always like I’m an esoteric creature; I just introduce myself, sing and go home,” he told the Evening Standard.
Contemporary songwriters Jenny Hval and Mitski openly adore Björk, both taking the opportunity to interview their hero for a Dazed movie in 2017. Other parallels can be reductive. Shape-shifting singer FKA twigs, for example, is often referred to as Björk-like. While the pair share a collaborator in music video visionary Andrew Thomas Huang, the comparison is too easy for women who defy traditional pop.
In the 25 years since its release, To send it has come to represent something broader than Björk’s specific point of view. It is the best possible result of a timeless presumption: transplanting intoxicated by a new city, channeling their experiences and anxieties into art. In an age when cities are isolated and flights are blocked, To send feels incredibly romantic.
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