The Good: Moments of voice, Moments of lyrics or sound
The Bad: Just terrible sound, production, voice, Indecipherable lyrics, Musically nightmarish, Crediting
The Basics: Bjork's Debut prioritizes being different over being musical and the album is a mess in too many places and one I am eager to not recommend to anyone who likes music!
We all write our reviews in different ways, from a different perspective. I listen to a compact disc at least five times before I write even a word of a review of it. Instead, I listen to an album over and over again and see how it resonates, how it is arranged, what stands out, what does not hold up over many listens, etc. I have gotten in a small pile of Bjork's c.d.s because I thought it would be good to expand my horizons and I had heard that she was a true original. I am now on my ninth listen to Debut and I am hoping quite strongly that I can finish this review before it clocks over into time ten.
I am one who reviews a lot of music and one of my persistent themes is that sometimes there is an artist that is "the new thing we've heard before." So, for example, on Fountains Of Wayne's Traffic And Weather (reviewed here!) the group is pushing the envelope in the same general direction as Barenaked Ladies did on Are Men (reviewed here!). There is a pretty constant quest in the music world to be successful and that is what usually compels those releasing something new to release an album that is "something new that we've heard before" instead of a true original. On Debut, Bjork presents something new that we've never heard before.
Unfortunately, it's just terrible.
With eleven tracks clocking in at 48:26, Debut presents the pop/dance stylings of Iceland's Bjork, a waifish eccentric artist who appears on the cover of the c.d. as a teary-eyed specter that seems to resemble current Michael Jackson. Scary. Bjork is going to take most of the credit - and blame - for this highly assembled album as she wrote or co-wrote every track, but one (according the the top of the disc - the liner notes do not have lyrics or writing credits). She plays the keyboards, arranged the brass section with one of the players, and produced or co-produced two of the tracks. As well, she provides the primary vocals on Debut. So, as it seems, this is her work the way she apparently wanted it.
It freaks me out how bad this album is. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not a huge fan of dance music. I can dig instrumental, remixes and orchestral works, but the heavy basslines, throbbing synths and dictatorial percussion of dance music often sets me off. The whole purpose of the music is largely to get one to move and it's often a very forced energetic form of movement that the music demands and it's more exercise than fun. Honestly, I'm not sure Bjork's alternative pop is truly considered dance, but given that most of the music seems to lean that way, it seems to fit.
First, what could pass from Debut? Well, there are hints of coherency and voice that come through on various tracks of Debut that imply that Bjork has talent. Is seems like she might be a decent soprano when she lets herself be, but more often she ventures into either the high alto range or just screeches. Those who might have been bothered by my defining Alanis Morissette's sound on Jagged Little Pill (reviewed here!) as shrieking ought to know that Morissette has nothing on Bjork's performance near the beginning of "Crying." There are musical moments where Bjork is downright painful. Oh, but this was supposed to be the positive section. On "Venus As A Boy," Bjork's voice comes through and illustrates a promise for the listener that leaves the listener feeling like the rest of the album might not be a wash.
And I want to give some serious, heartfelt credit to the originality of Bjork. Even on Debut, it is clear that she is doing her own thing and she has a perspective that is very different from most anyone else in music. I don't think there is anyone else who has recorded a track for a major label release from the toilets of a public space as Bjork does with "There's More To Life Than This."
Conceptually, "Venus As A Boy" has some moments where the lyrics are interesting and even clever. With sexually charged lyrics, Bjork sings about a man who has the powers of arousal and sophistication of the goddess of love. And it works. It's clever for a few moments and comprehensible and the idea of that much sensuality being locked into a man is an intriguing idea that no one else in music seems to feel free to explore.
The problems start in the lyrics and arrangement and the intensity of the song that guts its purpose and magic. "Venus As A Boy" is a great example; she sings some of the lines with a revelatory tone when she is singing "He's Venus as a boy!" after she has sung the line several times before. It's almost like Bjork expects it to be new and different again after she has already revealed the big "reversal" within the lyrics. By the time the build-up in the lyrics gets to the point where it truly would be a revelation, the listener has already heard it and the reaction is more "yeah, we got that, what else do you have for us?"
Vocally, Bjork is all over the map. She goes high, she goes low. On "There's More To Life Than This" right around the two minute mark, she growls. Not a sexy growl, but a dog-like feral growl that is unpleasant to the ears. But with tracks like "Like Someone In Love," possibly the most traditional sounding track (it has a lullaby/nightclub feel to it), Bjork gives a straightforward vocal presentation where her natural voice dominates the front spectrum of sound, selling her innate talent. At least, until the three minute mark where she begins to stretch her notes and words out for a section that makes for a contrast that undermines the inherent beauty of her voice on the rest of the song.
But the vocal quality on "Like Someone In Love" is clearly the exception to the rule on Debut. Opening with "Human Behavior," a track so overproduced that her natural voice barely comes through, listeners are left wondering what truly is Bjork's voice. Many of the tracks, like "Big Time Sensuality" and "Violently Happy" provide vocal performances that have no center. They are vocals clearly enhanced by production elements and twisted into something far away from a natural voice that one stops caring about the words because the level of production is so overbearing that whatever is being sung has a disingenuous quality to it. So, for example, on "Big Time Sensuality" when Bjork (apparently) sings about the joys of having real beauty and sex appeal (she gets growly when she's not being produced over) there is nothing sensual about her vocal performance. Instead, her message is incongruent with her presentation and the song just becomes about getting people to dance or move.
I write "apparently" when discussing the lyrics because most of the album is gibberish. The vocal presentations are so garbled on many of the tracks that Bjork is almost entirely indecipherable. After nine listens, I still catch new lyrics and I am pretty sure that I'm not getting all of the lines right. The problematic vocal aspect of this is that Bjork's pronunciation of English words on Debut are not all that good. Before some readers take offense to that, allow me to say this: I don't know why she is obsessed with singing in English. Finland, for example, has a very active rock/pop/metal/dance scene of people who sing in Finnish. Are they known the world around? No, but they are very popular there. My point with this apparent digression is this: Bjork's obvious discomfort with the English language on the pronunciation level (there are a lot of "dj" sounds for "y"'s for example and elongated vowels with odd stresses) makes me wonder why she bothered to even record in English. Unless it was a commercial decision, in which case I think it cheapens her integrity as an artist, but that's just me.
Either way, the lyrics are presented in a garbled fashion and lacking liner notes, it's difficult to tell what she's singing on many of the songs. What does come through it that many of the songs, like "Human Behaviour" and especially "There's More To Life Than This" are terribly repetitive. The same lines get repeated over and over again with throbbing baselines and heavy synths and degenerate into a hypnotic quality.
Even the more comprehensible lines, like Bjork opening "Aeroplane" with "I cannot live peacefully without you / For even a moment / I miss you terribly when you're away . . ." quickly become lost to a garbled sound that loses the words that Bjork is singing. But it seems Debut focuses on more philosophical things like the nature of existence ("There's More To Life Than This"), longing ("Aeroplane"), and the joys of being sexual ("Venus As A Boy" and "Big Time Sensuality"). The problem is, so many of the lyrics cannot be easily understood that their impact is truly lost.
This brings us to the music on Debut. When it isn't being straightforward dance or straightforward vocal pop, the songs are just weird. So, for example, "Aeroplane" has animal noises on it. But most of the album is keyboards, programming, drums, bass and guitar dominating Bjork's waifish vocals. "Come To Me" has a remarkably simple pop beat with minimal melody but even the strings and programming drown out most of Bjork's voice, making it yet another difficult to listen to track.
And the whole album is like that. It's electronic, it's dance, it's quietly eccentric and noisy and it obscures any genuine talent or artistry that Bjork might possess. And it is painfully unlike anything musical I've ever heard and I'm glad to be sending this one back. There's good weird out there; Debut is not it.
The best track is possibly the simplistic "Like Someone To Love," the low point is the thematic mess and atonal drecht that is "Violently Happy."
For other, former, Artist Of The Month works, please check out my reviews of:
The Beginning Of Survival - Joni Mitchell
Luck Of The Draw - Bonnie Raitt
Britney Jean (Deluxe Edition) – Britney Spears
For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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