Björk: Layers of Meaning
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
By Jaime Garcia Sandoval
Most people react with confusion when first encountering Björk. The iconoclast is known to many for her avant-garde music, and to others for her bizarre attire (Google: Björk swan dress). Her music is not what one might call radio-friendly or catchy—or even music, for that matter—but that’s exactly what first made me want to know more about her. As an English major, I know how rewarding it can be to read some 300-year-old text that is initially inaccessible but, after meticulous study, decodes before my eyes. I knew it would be a challenge, but I was hoping that it would be a worthy one.
And it was. Don’t get me wrong—it took me some time to truly “get” her music. I would listen to curated playlists on Spotify but found that every song was so different from the next. It was difficult to understand where she was coming from. Then, I decided to simply listen to her albums in chronological order. Looking back, this seems like a no-brainer, but it really made a difference. Björk’s discography is a complex musical journey that offers only a couple of access points. The best way to start is to go back to her 1993 solo debut, aptly titled Debut.
It’s hard to understate the legacy this album has had on dance-pop music. Artists like M.I.A., Lady Gaga, Robyn, and Grimes have all cited being influenced by the album’s eclectic blend of genres from electropop to art pop. Debut is Björk at her most radio-friendly; the conventional verse-chorus structure is largely intact throughout, but that doesn’t mean that this a simple pop album. As co-producer, Björk uses not only her lyrics to tell her story, but the music itself. In “There’s More to Life Than This,” the singer ponders an existence beyond partying while at a bar. The song was recorded in the bathroom of a London bar and uses its hustle-and-bustle as a backdrop for its steady beat and sultry vocals. “C’mon on, girl! Let’s sneak out of this party. It’s getting boring,” she sings. The volume and clarity of the track changes as people open and close the bathroom doors, and it really feels like you’re inside a dance club with Björk as she cajoles you into sneaking off to the harbor to see the sun come up. This wish to escape the crowded city and go somewhere quiet is fulfilled in the album’s last song. “The Anchor Song” features a minimalist arrangement of saxophones that are meant to sound like boat horns. It is the only song on the album entirely produced by Björk, and notably does away with orthodox song structure. She opts instead for a single verse repeated twice, in which she vows to always live near the ocean. The song is a glimpse of the minimalist direction that the singer would adopt after the turn of the century, and the rest of her albums in the nineties are an interesting transition into that.
Björk’s second album, Post, is even more diverse than her first. The singer dives head-first into genres previously untouched by her. At times combining the genres and other times featuring them on their own, this album offers big industrial beats (“Army of Me”), jazzy pop standards (“It’s Oh So Quiet”), and the chaotic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production of “I Miss You.” Although it’s not an immediately cohesive album, the glue that holds it together is Björk’s evolving lyricism and its relationship to the music. In “Enjoy,” the singer explores a dangerous and unprecedented moment of intimacy. Produced with the help of trip-hop pioneer Tricky, the song features a bass-heavy production that blends hip-hop beats with industrial synthesizers to create a track that is eerie yet club-ready. “How can I ignore? This is sex without touching…I’m only into this to enjoy” she says, her voice filtered and distant. Her descriptions are paradoxically precise yet ambiguous enough to contribute to the mysterious song. The song’s chorus features Björk screaming “enjoy!” and doing her signature growl over a militant beat. This simplicity and brashness is the charm of Post.
The song’s video adds another dimension to the storytelling by featuring Isobel (played by Björk) going into a city that becomes overtaken by nature. It’s hard to do this visually stunning masterpiece justice using words, so I highly recommend watching it. Critically acclaimed art production is a hallmark of this era. The iconic Homogenic album cover features Björk with a heart painted on her lips, wearing an Alexander McQueen kimono-style gown and “10 kilos of hair” arranged in an exaggerated version of Princess Leia’s hair buns. The cover is one of Björk’s most iconic career moments.
Four years after Homogenic, Björk returned with a much more subdued sound that would come to define her style for years to come. During the early 2000s, music sharing sites like Napster were threatening the music industry by providing pirated music to listeners online. Due to the technology of the time, these illegal mp3’s greatly reduced music’s quality. As a result, Björk set out to craft an album whose quality would not diminish if illegally downloaded. She says, “I use micro-beats, a lot of whispery vocals, which I think sound amazing when they’re downloaded because of the secrecy of the medium. The only acoustic instruments I would use would be those that sound good after they’ve been downloaded, so the harp, the music box, celeste and clavichord.” As a result, Vespertine is an album noticeably different than its predecessor. Whereas Homogenic had an aggressive techno sound, Vespertine had a more subdued, ethereal charm.
Björk’s idea about the secrecy of music downloading and individual listening continues into the content of the music itself, with the album’s first track being titled “Hidden Place.” The song features a subtle choir paired with micro-beats that were created from everyday domestic sounds. The song gives a feeling of closeness, as if Björk is personally whispering to you, “let’s go to our hidden place.” On the next track, “Cocoon,” Björk softly murmurs about the surprising intimacy she has found with her partner. “When I wake up…In his arms, he’s still inside me,” she sings in shaky falsetto. This album is not a place where Björk is concerned with vocal performance so much as creating the right ambiance. The places where her voice cracks only add to the texture of each song, making it seem that much more earnest. Vespertine is an album that focuses on the aesthetic of honesty and transparency. Rather than shout and growl, Björk whispers sweet nothings. At times, she simply vocalizes wordlessly along with the music. The effect of the album’s musical direction creates a beautiful album that only gets better with each listen. It’s Björk’s quietest album by far, but that’s precisely what makes it so loud. Vespertine is considered Björk’s best album by many fans and critics alike.
Björk is certainly an acquired taste, and she takes some effort to truly understand. Throughout my years listening to her, I have realized that it requires work to parse out all the different layers of her art. But, damn, it’s worth it. Every time I give one of her albums a spin, I find something new to focus on. If you’re ever in the mood for some music that gives you a bit of a challenge, throw on Björk’s Debut and get ready for a genre-bending musical journey.