Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Björk’s second album, the foundation for one of the most consequential careers in pop history.
Inspecting the inner mechanics of her television set, Björk’s face lit up with wonder. “It looks like a little model of a city, all the houses and trees, and here are the wires, they really take care of all the electrons…” It was 1988, and Björk was two years removed from the dissolution of her gothy post-punk band KUKL, which released music on the UK punk label Crass. But as the lead singer of art-rock tricksters the Sugarcubes, she still looked the part. In the interview clip, Björk explains that an Icelandic poet once made her painfully afraid of her television—a TV program can hypnotize you, the poet said, going “directly into your brain and you stop judging if it’s right or not, you just swallow and swallow.” When she read the scientific truth about television in a Danish book, she was much more calm. As the segment concludes, Björk looks into the camera: “You shouldn’t let poets lie to you.”
Not unlike the music Björk would proceed to make—going solo with 1993’s Debut—the effect of this footage is a little bemusing, quite soothing, entirely spellbinding. Björk is fearless, funny, slyly political, absurd. She is drawing an unlikely intersection of technology and intimacy, embodying what would become her eternal promise: It is possible to be both weird and understood.
By her second record, 1995’s Post, Björk had become well-acquainted with the bustling cosmopolitan energy of cities. She had relocated from Iceland to London in the early 1990s as a 27-year-old mother of a 6-year-old son, but her Arctic home was always with her. Björk attended music school in Reykjavík from ages 5 to 14—her precocious introduction to experimental electronic composers such as Stockhausen and John Cage—and released her first album at 11; her “hardcore hippie” mother did the psychedelic cover art.
But nature was her ultimate teacher. Björk said Iceland itself, not other singers, shaped her voice. It is an extreme landscape of glaciers and volcanoes, of barrenness and eruptions, endless daylight in summer and mostly darkness in winter. Walking 40 minutes to school, a young Björk entertained herself by singing: sneaking down to the moss on the ground to whisper a verse, running up a hill to unleash a chorus loudly against the wind. Björk absorbed the peaks and valleys, light and dark, twists and turns of her reality, arriving nowhere conventional. When she sang in accordance to the moss and the hills, perhaps it was a result of studying Cage in school: music was everywhere.
Instinct became Björk’s personal law, and boundlessness became her key. Maybe it was the punk-surrealist in her, saying doors are only locked if you believe them to be, that what exists inside your mind is already real. “I’m going hunting for mysteries […] I’m going to prove the impossible really exists,” Bjork sings on Post’s austere “Cover Me,” each note aglow with a sense of discovery.
Björk saw Debut and Post “like twins, the first and second born,” as Rolling Stone reported in ’95, and she said both were “a celebration of the unpredictability of life,” like a “greatest hits of [her] musical passions” to that point. They could together be called The London Years, existing in the historical lineage of art reflecting the experiences of women in cities, seeking adventures: Björk called the protagonist of Post “that wide-eyed girl from the country, but she’s been in the city for a while… she’s consuming the city and the city is consuming her.” Having previously played with rock bands—the Sugarcubes toured with U2 and Public Image Ltd—Björk found “there was absolutely no creativity in rock venues.” Yearning to meet artists pushing sound to reflect the moment, she ventured into rapt underground London dance clubs, where she found collaborators in Nellee Hooper, Graham Massey of 808 State, Howie B, and Tricky of the Massive Attack milieu. Björk fused the abstracted atmospherics of this avant-dance zeitgeist—IDM, trip-hop, techno, house—with all the parts of herself: the episodic melodies of late-’70s Joni Mitchell, the guttural edges of Meredith Monk’s extended vocal techniques, a voice on par with the supreme emotional greats of history, Edith Piaf on ecstasy.
The Post sessions began at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. There, Björk could sing outside the way she did as a child: snaking the long wires of her microphone and headphones down to the ocean, into caves, or under a bush beneath the stars. Electricity communed with Earth. “I was crying my eyes out with joy,” Björk once said of the Bahamas sessions. “It was completely outrageous.” Upon returning to London, Bjork went on her own mission to “bring the album alive,” adding bagpipes, trumpet, saxophones, dulcimers, harp, an orchestra, and a brass band to the productions, re-recording some songs entirely.
She wanted every song to be a shock, to work in wildly contrasting styles. “My musical heart was scattered at the time,” Björk once said, “and I wanted the album to show that.” Post is far greater than the sum of its parts—the sensory rush of dance music meeting pop storytelling, spontaneity mixed with ambition. Björk explodes her interior world into the role of the extrovert. If you took the “punk” out of “post-punk” that Björk previously made, but retained its ethos of eclecticism; if you left the “modern” off “postmodern,” but kept its spirit of bricolage; you arrive here: Björk, singular, Post. Maybe the only appropriate modifier is an absence of one, a Cagean blank space, a gesture towards possibility.
Although Post contains some old-fashioned heartache, its defining romance is an unconventional one: a pure love for music. The somnambulant dream song, Post’s closer “Headphones,” chronicles in real time all the ways music can rearrange a person—in its lyrics as well as in the euphoric fracturing of its dubby production by Tricky, who was especially close to the “headphone” music of his Bristol hometown (à la Massive Attack, Portishead). “I like this resonance/It elevates me/I don’t recognize myself/This is very interesting,” Björk intones. “My headphones/They saved my life.” Björk wrote “Headphones” about falling asleep to mixtapes from her collaborator, Graham Massey; she pulled the words from her diary.
This uncanny passion for sound is felt everywhere on Post. It’s in the scorched industrial march of “Enjoy,” in the grandeur of the strings on “You’ve Been Flirting Again.” It’s in the crackling trip-hop melancholy of “Possibly Maybe,” in the cool free jazz that rustles beneath “The Modern Things,” in the gleaming harpsichord of “Cover Me” (the vocals of which were recorded in a cave full of bats). And it’s especially present in the deliriously fun big-band blast of “It’s Oh So Quiet”—Björk’s madcap cover of the wartime tune from Hollywood star Betty Hutton, which she recorded with a 20-piece orchestra, manifesting her deep-rooted love for musicals. In a 1995 “AOL Chat” interview, a fan asked Björk where the idea for “It’s Oh So Quiet” came from, and she said that her live music director Guy Sigsworth “found it in a truck stop”—on a cassette comp—“and it became the tour anthem of last tour. Turned us on before the gigs.” It’s a cover that only a true pop maniac would go through with and only a pop maestro could pull off. The song explodes from Björk’s pin-drop whispers to throat-shredding wails—alongside blaring brass, the sheer loudness of Björk’s singing is a visceral delight. “Oh, what’s the use of falling in love?” Björk sings on the comedown, before raving up with an answer again.
Björk has called her work “modern folk songs,” and each one tells a story. This idea keeps in the Icelandic tradition of sagas. “Isobel” is one of Björk’s most epic tales, gesturing towards introspection and self-knowledge. The folkloric lyrics—“My name Isobel/Married to myself”—were written with Björk’s frequent collaborator, the Icelandic poet Sjón, a man who was inspired to refine his English to better understand David Bowie’s lyrics. In the documentary Inside Björk, she describes the titular Isobel—named so to echo “isolation”—as a force of a woman who retreats completely from the muchness of the world. Growing up in a forest, she comes to see that “the pebbles on the forest floor were actually baby skyscrapers.” As Isobel becomes a woman, she finds herself in the big city, where she clashes with civilization and returns to the forest. “There she would collect moths and train them to send out her message […] a message of instinct,” Björk said. The moths flew before the faces of people “functioning with too much logic […] and go, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no’ til people click out of this state of being sensible.”
Of course, Björk’s music is a testament to what is possible when logic and practical sense are not guiding principles. But she hardly withdrew. Björk said she had a total of three days off in 1993 and 1994 combined—she had become a legitimate star. In the face of the chaos of fame, “Army of Me” summons resilience, as if Björk knew exactly what she would be up against in the years to come. (In 1996, a fan tried to mail a bomb to her house.) She said “Army of Me” was written as an ultimatum to her own brother, to regain control of his life, lest he “meet an army of me.” Björk scratches at the depths of her voice, and the industrial backbone of the song, the crashes and shrapnel, fortify the task. “Army of Me” is proof that being the most obvious misfit in the room often requires being the toughest, too.
The double-time techno of “Hyperballad” begins with a glint. But it hones its strength. It’s a work of surrealism, narrating the tale of a woman who wakes up early at the top of a mountain, and throws “car parts, bottles, and cutlery” off its edge. She wonders what it would be like to throw herself off, too, her body slamming against the rocks, her eyes open all along—as a kind of catharsis, an emotional purging, in order to deal with people later: “I go through all this/Before you wake up/So I can feel happier/To be safe up here with you.” Her melody rises and tumbles, a slow spiral; the suspended rapture of the beat catches her in air.
If Debut’s “Human Behavior” was an ultimate outcast anthem—“If you ever get close to a human and human behavior, be ready, be ready to get confused”—then “Hyperballad” feels like a triumphant appeal to exist cooperatively alongside other people. Björk did this not only in her hyper-collaborative albums but in her entire project of making pop music, trying to reach all kinds of people at once. “Everything’s geared toward self-sufficiency. Fuck that,” Björk told punk historian Jon Savage in Interview. “For me, the target is to learn how to communicate with other people, which is the hardest thing, after all. What you should be doing is learning how to live with other human beings.” Car parts, bottles, cutlery, technology, and political superpowers are no match against this outreaching feeling, this ethos of interconnectedness that lives inside “Hyperballad,” inside of Björk in general, and it is an instinct inherent, ever crucially, in the survival of humanity.
“All the modern things/Like cars and such/Have always existed,” Björk sings on “The Modern Things.” “They’ve just been waiting in a mountain/For the right moment.” Not unlike the 23-year-old who dissected a television with love and awe, there’s a fantastic tinge of hope to this idea and to the whole of Post, an invitation into her profound exploration of places not yet traveled, to acknowledge the magic in the fact that there are sounds you might love that you can’t currently fathom. Twenty-five years later, you don’t need to scroll far through Björk’s Instagram feed to find the most audacious young popular artists alive, the likes of Arca and Rosalía, heeding that call, crowning her “queen.”
With Post, Björk set the bionic foundation for one of the most consequential careers in pop history. Here is where Björk became a perennial gateway drug, not to one sound but to the unknown, which is to say the future. She would soon leave London for the south of Spain and then New York, recording her two towering masterpieces—1997’s Homogenic, which Missy Elliott once gleefully likened to “Mozart at a rap show,” and the introverted microbeats of 2001’s Vespertine—crystallizing the totality of her vision. What other artist could successively collaborate with Wu-Tang Clan, interview Estonian minimalist legend Arvo Pärt, and appear on “MTV Unplugged” accompanied by a man playing a table of drinking glasses? In another era, maybe Bowie, which is just right—it was Bowie, after all, who inspired Björk’s immortal swan dress. By the end of the ’90s, the world would know the only answer: Björk.
Buy: Rough Trade
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