Björk’s music is full of range and dimension. This is true both in the sense of her voice, which sweeps across octaves with equal helpings of elegance and coarseness, but also in her varied inflection and choice of songwriting material. One could plot her music on a chart with two poles that span innocence and seductiveness, alongside harmony and discordance, and find that she dances around in all four quadrants both in her greater discography and oftentimes within the same track.
This versatility and unparalleled ability to present music with a dizzying array of genre influences, while somehow falling together into an intoxicating unity, which would be nigh impossible given the circumstances, was readily apparent in Björk’s first true solo foray into the world of popular music.
Behind the inner workings of Debut are a rock-solid musical foundation that Björk had developed since she was a child, and a heaping dose of experimental ethos piled on the top. The result is a record that makes the listener want to dance, cry, scream, or do all of the above at the same time. Most of all, it’s also an album that not in spite of, but because of, its cited global antecedents is distinctly European in form and function.
Of interesting note and relevance to Björk’s resume as a songwriter, she chose the title Debut not as an exercise in being meta, but to mark the beginning of something new. At the age of 11, she released an album in Iceland following her appearance on national radio after she was noticed by a talent recruiter. For most purposes, this first album is considered juvenalia and not regarded as important in the grand scheme of her discography. This is a testament to her extensive history in the music world, however. Much like the famed 10,000 hours the Beatles spent in Hamburg, Björk has been writing and performing music for a considerable amount of time, something reflected in Debut.
“Human Behavior,” the first song of the album and one penned by Björk before she was even a member of the Sugarcubes, is constructed around syncopated timpani that flutters about an unmistakable four-on-the-floor rhythm Björk incorporates into nearly every track on the album. It’s a pattern that she learned from her time spent in the London club circuit during the late 1980s and ’90s, and one that she will use as a blueprint or touchstone for most of Debut.
“Human Behavior” is sung from the perspective of some innocent, genuinely confused narrator; one could imagine these being the words of an observant fly on the wall, or perhaps a child that has just become conscious enough to realize the actions of the adults around them are truly erratic.
Björk leaves nothing uncertain when it comes to the capabilities of her voice on this song; drifting between a sultry, if not rough croon, all the way to a broken wail that pierces the chorus. Drones, shaking percussion, and smatterings of strings complement each other in such a way that “Human Behavior” has no truly quiet moments, but it is never overly cacophonous, either. As far as introductions ago, there isn’t much else one could ask for.
“Crying” is the second track on Debut. While techno influence was present on “Human Behavior,” “Crying” is where Björk makes it abundantly clear that she intends to burn down the dance floor. Clangs on the second and fourth greet the listener with an extended hand to let loose, which is exactly what Björk does over the top of piano and various futuristic stabs that flesh out a song one could reasonably expect to hear blasting over the PA of some off-the-wall club tucked away in a London side street.
When Björk screams, however, it’s never a horrifying wail that punishes the ears and forces one to turn away; rather, it’s almost as if one were to throw standard operatics into vat of acid and allowed the roughened edges to add yet another layer of modulation to a voice that already warbles between frequency with grace. “Crying” is a solid addition to Björk’s club oeuvre, but these high-energy tunes are not the only things she’s capable of.
“Venus as a Boy,” one of Björk’s most beloved songs and the second single from this album, follows. Built around a gentle, yet persistent beat with flowing strings, Indian tablas, and harmonious clatter, Björk spins a tale of a man capable of bringing out the best possible in the woman he loves; Venus, the spirit of femininity, manifesting herself inside a man. Björk never has a sullen or hardened moment on this song; at times sensual, but mostly lovestruck, it’s nearly impossible to not smile listening to her wax poetic about the man who certainly stole her heart.
This mythical figure may not be mythical, so much as romanticized: it’s commonly believed Björk took inspiration from her relationship with Dominic Thrupp to write “Venus as a Boy.” The numerous influences, personal and global, that permeate this song are never in conflict with each other, a testament to both Björk and her producer Nellee Hooper’s talents and creative ethos. Hearing ethnic instruments over the top of a slowed-down, arguably ambient club drum and bassline would normally cause one to turn away in disgust. On this track, it merely causes one to nod in agreement.
“There’s More to Life Than This” is a highly interesting song for more than one reason. Inspired by Björk immediately leaving a party she once went to, the album version of this song was recorded live inside the bathrooms of the Milk Bar in London, giving the impression that Björk is actually singing about her exasperation with her night out inside of a club blasting dance music. In fact, a couple minutes in, we hear the sound of a door opening and then being shut, with an accompanied muffling of the instrumental. This instrumental, by the way, is positively groovy; following every tried-and-true rule of house music, Björk succeeds in bringing the energy of a club in the early hours of the morning to the listener in a way that’s both faithful to the experience and critical of how it may leave one feeling empty inside. Björk suggests to herself that she steal a boat in the harbor, and sail away. After all, there is more to life than this.
“Like Someone in Love” is a cover of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s now-timeless jazz standard. Björk’s voice drifts gently between tender plucks and the spray of ocean waves, occasionally peaking in a pseudo-growl when the lyrics reach an emotional height. Themes of love are very common throughout Debut, and Björk breathes a weightless air into this track from what could only be a place of genuine warmth in her heart. Her ability to remain simultaneously girlish and adorable while being an inventive and challenging artist is, without a doubt, the reason for her staying power as a musician decades later. Where many women in music opt to either be completely endearing or entirely unpleasant, Björk walks a very fine line to outstanding results. It’s why Björk’s work frequently is cited as some of the best musical productions of our time, and why nameless idols or riot-girl punk rockers are typically consigned to their moment in history.
“Big Time Sensuality” breaks the analog interlude of “Someone in Love” with the sounds of keyboard, hi-hats, and claps, a glowing neon sign reading: “There is a club banger ahead!” Björk’s acid house influence is most prominent on this track, with a gently squelchy bassline and a minimalist melody. Her lyricism is of particular intrigue, crooning about the need for courage to feel something good, such as the eponymous “big-time sensuality” that she is about to experience with someone as per this song’s narrative. It’s a curious thought, given that we usually take positive moments as they are, and need courage to do something scary or unpleasant.
While one could argue that this is a track merely extolling casual sex as some kind of spiritual experience, such a thing might be shortsighted or needlessly dismissive. Björk isn’t necessarily celebrating the act of sex, more the notion of being able to understand it for all of its meanings, and actively acknowledge the impact it has on one’s mood, outlook, and overall worldview. Fornicating with strangers? Not the best use of one’s time. Learning how to stop taking such things for granted? Far more useful.
“One Day” is chock full of futurism, whether it’s in the squared-off synthesizer drowned in LFO, or the oozing reverb of Björk’s voice hypnotically repeating promises of future satisfaction. A deep, unstoppable bassline holds the entire exercise together before everything converges into a yet another nightclub stomper. Björk continues her theme of romance, seemingly promising another specific individual of splendor and celebration. “One Day,” while not a bad track, also lacks to a certain degree the staying power of others on this album on account of its relative blandness. While it is a boundary-pushing song for its period, it could easily be mistaken as a downtempo club track and nothing more. Björk does not interrupt the formula of the song, nor treat us to one of her signature shrieks. “One Day” proves easily forgotten, but pleasant when remembered.
“Aeroplane” is a song Björk produced herself, awash in saxophone in its introduction, before transitioning smoothly to a deep and danceable, international instrumental. Björk laments the distance between her and the person she loves, promising she’ll leave on an aeroplane to the other side of the world in order to follow her heart. Each verse is punctuated by a jazz interlude, creating a feeling of structure without dissecting the song itself.
“Come to Me” features an equally seductive and maternal Björk, where she manages to channel her inner concerned lover without coming across as overbearing or even strange. Her voice fluttering over sliding strings, rolling hats, and the dependable kicks and snares of your standard house song, Björk promises such things as destruction of the thing keeping her lover down, nursing him back to health, and understanding his plight.
“Come to Me” is probably the album’s most feminist song, which is saying a lot, considering not two tracks earlier she was gushing about the strength needed to get in a stranger’s pants. “Come to Me,” rather, is humorous for its purported message of empowerment and Björk’s exclusively maternal ability to heal and support her partner through thick and thin. Björk’s brand of feminism seems to be more of a celebration about her feminine qualities and their exclusivity to members of her sex, and less about behaving as repugnantly as possible. Curious.
“Violently Happy” is an energetic work, where Björk waxes about the dangers of a love so powerful it drives a person to madness when their partner is away from them. Composition-wise, it is the most techno-influenced song on the album. Most of the danceable tracks on Debut draw their influence from house, but “Violently Happy” centers itself on a constant pulse and an acidic breakdown towards the midpoint of the track. Björk’s vocals and carefully implemented ambience work in tandem with a back-to-basics approach in the percussion and bassline, lending the track a sense of minimalism that wouldn’t sound out of place in Detroit. “Violently Happy” was both the first and one of the most popular singles off Debut, and a highly accurate depiction of Björk’s musical transition from the chaotic punk influences of The Sugarcubes to the highly precise output she would become famous for.
The album ends with the quiet “Anchor Song.” Lacking anything other than brass instrumentation and Björk’s contemplative, tender voice, it’s a perfect closer for a record that has run a wild gamut of influences and bombasticness and needs a pointer as to where Björk intends to go musically in the future. Her answer? At the bottom of the ocean, where she lives, and where she is staying. This song is both a soothing meditation on the importance of one laying down roots in the place he belongs in the physical sense, but also a nod to the listener: “I’m not going anywhere.” Björk made good on her promise; the same energy and creative ethos that marked Debut was in abundance on her next album, Post. If nothing else, “Anchor Song” feels most like an invitation to keep listening. So, why don’t we?