The Diva Cuts Loose

‘Post’ turns 20, with a zing and a boom.
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‘Post’ turns 20, with a zing and a boom.

Björk's career, so rich, so inventive, so frustrating, now spans almost 40 years. (Thirty-eight, to be exact.) Consider this: Her self-titled debut preceded Madonna’s own by half a decade. Other albums released the same year include Rumours, Marquee Moon, Never Mind the Bollocks…, and Low. (Pretty decent company, indeed.) Impossible!, you shout? To paraphrase “Cover Me”, Post’s penultimate track, the impossible really exists. And Björk proved it long ago. You see, she released Björk Guðmundsdóttir at the ripe old age of eleven. Her first LP, a covers collection sung in her native tongue, even became something of a sensation. Well, it was a hit in 1977 at least. OK fine, it was huge in Iceland and Iceland alone. Today, only the fiercest of Björk’s (non-Icelandic) fans have dipped a toe into it, if they’ve heard it at all. Such willful ignorance is understandable. Björk Guðmundsdóttir isn't worth anyone’s time or effort. I’d wager Björk herself has buried it deep in memory, perhaps under a henhouse of haute-couture swan eggs.

We yada yada over much of Björk’s early output for good reason. It’s patchy at best. The sole exception is another debut album — Life’s Too Good. The Sugarcubes’ 1988 LP remains a terrific, and charming, slice of avant-rock. The band’s two follow-ups? Not so much. Gling-Gló, her second unloved Icelandic covers collection, from 1990, lives on as a mere curio. We instead flash forward (or, rather, back) to 1993, our functional Year One. That’s the year Björk unleashed yet another debut album — Debut. Her sixth release as a recording artist towers as her first, and most crucial, solo rebirth. Hence Debut’s title, which is only confusing to the worst kind of music-nerd pedant.

An ever-mercurial visionary, Björk would have more revamps, and in quick succession. As most of us can agree, the quality of her celebrated solo work took a dip at some point. Even if you accept this premise, there’s further debate around when the slump started. I’d say it was on Vespertine, a record beloved by smarter people than me. (I try and try. It continues to leave me indifferent, if not cold.) Others would say the turning point happened on Medúlla, a showy formalist experiment. Or maybe on Volta, a failed sonic hodgepodge. Or perhaps on Biophilia, an utter conceptual mess. Björk’s latest record is the big wrinkle in this narrative. Vulnicura, a roaring creative comeback, is a contender for album of the year. So what exactly is she coming back to, you ask? There’s the obvious response: to her classic sound. That answer isn’t accurate or satisfying though. And it raises two corollary questions. Did Björk have a “classic sound” to begin with? If so, what was it?

(Glenn Luchford)

(Glenn Luchford)

I go through all this as I ponder Post, which turns 20 this year. Björk’s second proper solo album remains her breakthrough work. But it isn’t her finest. That honor goes to Homogenic, Post’s extraordinary, and aerodynamic, sequel. And yet, if there’s such a thing as quintessential Björk, there’s no mistake, this is it (to quote her biggest single). Post is, appropriately, a 46-minute-long shifting target. Apart from Debut, whose template Post yanks sideways like soft plastic, no other Björk release is so protean in form. It’s hard to pin down this expedition’s ceaseless, boundless march. Maybe that’s what we’ve missed most. Björk as the ruthless sonic conquistadora, planting her flags across various genres on a single LP. This is half of the story, I think. The other half is Post’s wide emotional palette, which includes purest joy. It’s no coincidence that Björk’s signature tune is a redo of Betty Hutton’s “It’s Oh So Quiet”. And to think, that song lumbers next to “I Miss You”, Post’s brassy, and delirious, cartoon freak out.

At its core, Post has always been a topsy-turvy pop record of the highest order. I’m old enough to have encountered it while it was still somewhat new. Back then, I was just a rock kid. But it nonetheless knocked me over, left me slack-jawed. Post was vivid. It was bold. It was breathtaking. Returning to it today, some primary musical colors have faded. Still, the album’s fundamental thrills, its many electric zaps, endure. If Post suffers in retrospect, it’s because pop has since caught up. Björk drew a blueprint for experimentation that, in 2015, isn’t unfamiliar to the Hot 100. The Velvet Underground & Nico appears unexceptional beside its vast progeny, four-and-a-half decades later. Likewise, Post seems a little quaint in a world where an album like Beyoncé can achieve mainstream success.

Part of Post’s original novelty was Björk’s further embrace of electronic instrumentation. Debut established her interest with such machine-made sounds. “One Day”, “Crying”, “Violently Happy”, and “Big Time Sensuality” were all mechanical dance numbers. Better songs, such as “Venus as a Boy” and “Human Behaviour”, veered away from the club, but not from that template. Post’s lone electronic dance banger is its apocalyptic opener, and lead single, “Army of Me”. And that’s being generous, given its slower-than-usual BPM menace. “I Miss You” may have a tempo designed for the dance floor. But it’s a chugging and wheezing Frankenstein android, one that succumbs to Big Band tantrums, over and over again. “Modern Things”, a lesser-known highlight, outlines the album’s regular aural approach. On it, Björk imagines technology as a product of the natural world, an earthly miracle older than the dinosaurs. (Here’s Jurassic Park’s central conceit, flipped on its head.) Post often makes that idea real. When it employs digital textures, they’re organic, unobtrusive. Like vines of electricity, they wrap around a soaring anthem (“Hyper-Ballad”). They jolt a mid-tempo blurt (“Enjoy”). They weave through an aching ballad (“Possibly Maybe”) and a tender lullaby (“Headphones”). They power an orchestral showstopper (“Isobel”).

(Spike Jonze/Björk)

(Spike Jonze/Björk)

If I were to list Björk’s ten greatest songs, five of Post’s six official singles would make the cut, a remarkable feat for one album. I would leave off “I Miss You”, a manic outburst that had no precedent in her catalog and has no analog since. “It’s Oh So Quiet”, on the other hand, is the single that remains singular, a career-defining exhibition. Björk further explored its theatricality on the wonderful soundtrack Selmasongs. After all, the song’s buoyant Spike-Jonze-directed video landed her the Dancer in the Dark gig in the first place. “Army of Me” showed Björk could deliver punk exasperation with clanging, stomping pomp. She would attempt to reproduce its lurching danger on Volta, with diminishing results. The narcotic, trip-hop haze of “Possibly Maybe” finds Björk the lyricist at her sharpest. Of all the bonkers words she’s sung (and they abound), none are as evocative as “I suck my tongue/ In remembrance of you.” The mythic, string-laden “Isobel” is, without a doubt, the song that best represents what would come. It’s the second installment in a narrative trilogy, which includes “Human Behaviour” and “Bachelorette”. “Isobel” laid the groundwork for Post’s excellent siblings Homogenic and Vulnicura, no small task. And then there’s “Hyper-Ballad”, a true marvel of technical innovation and emotional depth. All these years later, the song is peerless within Björk’s oeuvre, the shiniest jewel in her crown.

Even with phenomenal numbers to spare, Post’s forest can’t quite live up to its trees. Sadly, this was the last time Björk seemed to be having the slightest bit of fun. Yes, Homogenic is a stone cold masterpiece. It’s also an altogether humorless affair, and an inflection point in her evolution. Homogenic took Björk down a path that culminated with a retrospective at MoMA earlier this year. Far be it from me to disparage an artist’s pivot toward seriousness. But as Post — a monument of sophisticated pop — continues to prove, great art can be serious and playful too.