The Guide To Understanding Björk

How Björk managed to become such a powerful force in mainstream pop culture is one of the great unexplainable mysteries of our time. Over the course of her 40-plus-year career making music, Björk has epitomized the ideal of the free-spirited artist, taking her work wherever her muse may lead it without bending to the will of commercial trends or mass-market crowd pleasing. And yet she is one of the most distinct, consistently celebrated voices of the turn of the millennium, a pop-art maven whose work is difficult to even put into words, and yet whose sense of emotion and sonic innovation is unmistakable.

Part of Björk’s rise to stardom can certainly be attributed to the wonderfully eccentric music videos she deployed with the help of directors like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze right as she was emerging as a solo artist. The early ‘90s very well may have been the right place and the right time for weirdos like Björk (and Radiohead and Aphex Twin) to shimmy their way into the mainstream via MTV, even if, in Björk’s case, her videos were always more popular than her singles (at least in the U.S.). Not that that ever slowed her stride; tracing the evolution of Björk’s work, her earliest material is probably the most accessible music she ever made, her albums becoming more mutated and surreal with each release while always remaining a present and powerful locus of the cultural moment.

To say that Björk is an acquired taste would be an understatement, and that’s exactly how her music should be. Between her uncannily raw voice, her assorted spread of disorienting producers and collaborators, and her childlike commentaries on love and sexuality, Björk’s work is about as confrontational and avant-garde as it gets, only magnified to a level of public consciousness that few artists ever achieve. Whether you’re a curious newcomer unfamiliar to her strange world or a hyper-fan just seeking some nourishment, we’re here to break down Björk’s music into something that almost resembles common sense.

FIRST STEPS

Björk’s major breakthrough as a solo artist in the ‘90s largely fit in with certain sonic trends of the era. House music, trip-hop, and an umbrella sense of “alternative” were all having their moment, and these sounds largely informed the surreal dance pop of Debut and Post. “Army of Me,” with its Led Zeppelin-sampling backbeat and grimy production (courtesy of 808 State’s Graham Massey), sounds like a Portishead song that’s been set on fire, and these influences would carry through even to her modern work. Tracks like “Joga” and “Pagan Poetry” stir dark electronics with an orchestral sense of melody, while “Lionsong” drifts in and out of its beat as Björk delivers a painfully intimate serenade on dissipating love. But lest her sound become too easily categorized as “electronic,” let us not forget the shimmering, theatrical opus that is “It’s Oh So Quiet,” a surprise hit if there ever was one, thanks to its old-school brass-band arrangement and unhinged sense of release.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Part of what’s made Björk’s music so enduring over the years is the way she’s managed to synthesize a plethora of influences into something wholly her own. Take “Where Is The Line,” for example, a highlight off the a capella concept record Medúlla: The track combines a flurry of throaty beatboxing with distorted programming and operatic singing to bizarre effect, creating something otherworldly that still manages to call back to Björk’s early fascination with drum ‘n’ bass. Songs like “Possibly Maybe” and “Cocoon” show off just how atmospheric Björk is capable of being as well, both numbers swelling with deep synthesizer tones and light glitchy effects that contrast with her stark, passionate voice. Her knack for composition shines through as well on songs like “Black Lake” and the film-scoring “Ambergris March,” the former a somber requiem of slowly unfolding strings, the latter a peculiar yet lovely parade of bells and hand drums.

THE DEEP END

Whether she’s teaming up with collaborators or exploring the most extreme recesses of her sound, Björk is anything if not adventurous. Her earliest hit came with the Icelandic jangle-pop group The Sugarcubes, whose song “Birthday” may very well have set the stage for Björk’s massive solo career. Her starring role in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark resulted in a soundtrack of original songs as well, with “Cvalda” blurring the line between old Hollywood theatre and skull-crushing factory sounds. But Björk’s primary interest has always been revealing the physical intricacies of the body through otherworldly distortion, whether through the thrashing dance rhythms of “Pluto,” the primal a capella funk of “Triumph of a Heart,” or the echoing siren song of “Storm.” Entering Björk’s unusual sonic world can be unwieldy business, but as alien as it might seem, what’s consistently enthralling about her music is how utterly human it truly is.