Björk - Debut - Review
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critics' view

Right before Nirvana's In Utero killed grunge and Blur kickstarted Britpop with Parklife, Björk's Debut – 20 years old today – sounded like nothing else. Featuring elements of techno, trip-hop, jazz and pop, and influenced by Bollywood soundtracks and the buzz of London nightlife, it's an album fuelled by the sheer force of the Icelandic artist's personality. Debut reconstructed pop music and like any album that shakes up the status quo, not everyone was initially sold: The album's thirst for experimentation came at a time when music was primarily being made by men with guitars, Rolling Stone magazine bemoaning the fact that the former Sugarcubes frontwoman had ditched rock'n'roll in favour of something "painfully eclectic", and derided Nellee Hooper's production for sabotaging "a ferociously iconoclastic talent with a phalanx of cheap electronic gimmickry."

Perhaps aware of the musical climate Debut was being released into, Björk's label One Little Indian estimated that the album would sell around 40,000 copies, based on a rough approximation of the Sugarcubes' worldwide fan base. Just three months later, and having peaked in the UK at No 3, it had sold over 600,000 and Björk was well on her way to becoming one of the world's most experimental and thrillingly batshit new pop stars. Despite a gestation of several years and featuring a number of different collaborators, Debut makes sense of all of its disparate elements and influences, be it the almost comically lush strings (arranged by Talvin Singh) on Venus As A Boy, or the drunk-sounding brass interludes that pepper Aeroplane, courtesy of jazz saxophonist Oliver Lake.

Björk's vision for Debut started early, with a handful of the songs written while performing in various bands in Iceland. Aware that none of them really suited early punk bands Spit and Snot or KUKL, let alone the Sugarcubes, Björk eventually decamped to London to work on the album properly, initially sketching demos with 808 State's Graham Massey. What the album needed, however, was a focus – Björk's enthusiasm for all genres had led to her toying with the idea of hiring several producers. She was then introduced by Domininc Thrupp, her boyfriend at the time, to Nellee Hooper, who had recently worked with the likes of Sinead O'Connor and Soul II Soul. Björk was initially cautious of Hooper, telling The Face in 1993 that he was "too 'good taste'", until they eventually bonded over their similar approach to making music.

It's this partnership, as well as Björk's relationship with Thrupp, that infuses Debut with a sense of heightened emotion; a wide-eyed naivety and wonder caught in a specific moment. Venus As A Boy, for example, sounds like it's being sung through a lascivious grin ("his wicked sense of humour, suggests exciting sex", indeed), while the single Human Behaviour sets its gaze on the human race almost from the position of an external spectator, which is in some ways how it felt to be Björk at the time. In perhaps the album's most joyous moment, Big Time Sensuality, a techno-tinged celebration of living each moment to the full, Björk's voice glides through the musical scale as she sings: "I don't know my future after this weekend, and I don't want to." By the song's end, she's grunting and cooing wordless ad-libs in a paroxysm of unbridled joy.

If the point of a debut album is to set out an artist's stall and to lay the foundations for what's to come then Debut does this better than any album in recent memory. It's an album whose influence is still felt any time electronic instrumentation is fused with folk or jazz, or whenever a new female singer is described as "kooky" or "refreshing". While pop in 2013 looks back to the early 90s for inspiration, Björk's ability on Debut to innovate by using disparate genres without losing a sense of her own identity should be the blueprint for any new artist with desires to break the mould.

Michael Cragg
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