Review Summary: A far-off pop princess on a revolutionary pop album that is only a preface to her later career.
Of all of Björk's albums, I struggle to review Debut
the most of all, because my overall appreciation for its sound once I got to know it is slightly more muffled than my appreciation when realizing how significant this record was. I'm going to review it, though, on the way I
Björk was introduced to the general, English-speaking audience as an outsider, a quirky pop princess from a country people, up to that moment, didn't exactly know of or care about. But then came Björk. Her eccentric take on English-language lyricism, her outlandish vocal timbre, her outrageous ad-libs and cunning experimentalism first took of on this very album: Debut
. With Nellee Hooper, with some assistance from Björk herself, doing the production of the album, her eccentric compositions get a dancier feel than she initially might have fashioned them.
Opener Human Behaviour
packs a couple of samples: timpani, clean guitar, distorted guitar and brushed drums and creates an alienating, boisterous dance track over no more than two chords with some echoing vocals adding to its spacial effect. Sentences like "There is no map/and a compass wouldn't help at all" are quickly exchanged with passionate ad-libs to a danceable but weird effect. Crying
is more obviously disco like, and it's one of my favourite tracks from this album. The idiosyncratic tritone motives continuing throughout the song, the passionate vocals, the airy lyrics, the cooed vocals at the end, it's a winner.
Next comes Venus as a boy
, which uses a pounding vibraphone clustre and a Bollywood string arrangement with a bassline which by now has become a bit dated. The lyrics, though, are among the sweetest, sexiest and naughtiest in pop, starting off with "His wicked sense of humour/suggests exciting sex". This abstraction of well-known sentiments is what we later came to know and love about her songwriting and lyricism. Compared to this, There's more to life than this
is a bit of a cold shower. The Michael Jackson-influence floats free and the track only gets interesting by its theatrical effect of walking into a bathroom and out again.
The eclecticism of the album expands further with a harp cover of the jazz standard Like Someone in Love
which has an idiosyncratic but beautiful delivery. Its production sounds a tad flawed towards the end. Big Time Sensuality
is a highlight, way less dated than the Fluke-mix featured on the single and the iconic video. It's still a peppy, ecstatic song with a very simple arrangement, and of the dance-tracks on the album it's the most accomplished.
is a hopeful song, with a blissful lyric and soaring melody. The production and arrangements by now sound dated and let it down a bit - especially the horn solo in the middle, the flexatone sample and the Mickey-Mousing fireworks on cue: "the beautifullest fireworks". On the heels of this comes Aeroplane
which has mysterious marimba riffs and a crafty saxophone arrangement but is let down by the jungle sounds surrounding it, which make it a tad tacky.
Come to Me
is a beautiful song, a succes on all fronts, with a trippy, hazey vocal wanting to calm us down by being everywhere, all around. An incredible string arrangement, tabla's and a never-resolving piano motive lure us into her arms as she sings "destroy all that is keeping you back/and I'll nurse you". A different kind of love song would be Violently Happy
where she wants to be calmed down herself. The striking lyrical contrast with the previous song is evident, but its a cappella intro lures us into an ecstatic proto-trance track built around synths and what sounds like a blinker light beat. When heard live, the composition of the track with its idiosyncratic organ part appears to be a lot more interesting than what Hooper has made of it.
is the prototypical instrumentally-backed Björk song. Because it's a prototype it's a bit less worked out than her later efforts at this. The jazzy saxophone arrangement is interrupted every time she starts to sing and she gets a bit repetitive (in her live performances, she varies increasingly, to greater succes, on this now-classic). The lyric, though, is heartfelt and conveyed with a purity few pop artists can equal.
The bonus track Play Dead
is totally out of tune with the album. Its filmic, epic score by David Arnold with a Jah Wobble trip-hop beat evoke a different kind of Björk, the backings of which she later would also be able to compose by herself. I generally like listening to Debut
without Play Dead
, and listening to this song on the Greatest Hits
album, or all by itself. It's a beautiful, passionate effort, but it's in a different universe.
All in all, Debut
is a very impressive and significant effort which paved the way for a lot of '90's and '00's pop artists to explore their experimental side in their pop songs. Its songwriting is up to scratch, but not yet on the heights it would accomplish during her career. The arrangements, as far as they are not dated or marred by a tacky production (like on One Day
) are beautiful and interesting at once.
It's understandable that this album, groundbreaking as it is, rocketed up her career into the stratosphere. Seen over 20 years later, knowing what she has done after
this, it's an utterly enjoyable album, with some minor distractions.