Though Björk had enjoyed minor cult fame as the lead singer of the prog-punk band the Sugarcubes, it only took one solo album to solidify the artist forever known as Icelandic Pixie in the U.S. as a viable pop iconoclast. The plainly titled Debut and its accompanying music videos showcased the endlessly fascinating sides to Björk’s offbeat persona: sweater-clad explorer (“Human Behaviour”), bejeweled sensualist-egg chef (“Venus as a Boy”), lovesick insane asylum inmate (“Violently Happy”), and, perhaps most intriguingly, trailer-hitch improvisational performance artist (“Big Time Sensuality”). All four of the album’s singles tickled the fancies of pop fans who secretly wished pop iconography would take more dangerous, sensual leaps of intuition: Björk, through sheer force of will, seemed as experimental and frightening as her pop ditties were cute and ingenuous.
And then, of course, there was her voice: she could rarely be bothered to sing in the 4/4 time signature dance music often requires, and her paradoxically husky and reedy, thickly accented vocal tone could sound at turns childlike and tremulous or like a shriek from the crypt of banshees. But Debut, for all its sense of independent self-actualization (call it Björk’s Control, if you will), is honestly as much an achievement by dance producer extraordinaire Nellee Hooper as it is a reflection of Björk’s titanic character. Her 1995 follow-up, Post, upped the ante by plugging listeners into the diverse pop mixtape playing inside her mind, and if she had to go suss out producers as sundry as Graham Massey and Tricky to achieve her goals, then so be it.
It’s telling that Post includes two tracks initially slated for Debut and then scrapped when they seemed too far out at the time: “The Modern Things,” reportedly a response to rockist fans of the Sugarcubes who cried “sellout” when Björk learned to love the computer sequencer, and the lead-off track “Army of Me.” Right from the word go, Post is several furloughs beyond any of Debut’s perceived weirdness, as “Army of Me” provocatively merges a Weather Report-esque jazz-fusion bass riff with a heavy-timbered rock drumbeat to match her contemptuous vocal delivery (“Self-sufficience, please!). Without missing a beat, Björk puts herself into the role of fragile suicidist on “Hyper-Ballad,” as she throws tchotchkes over a cliff to approximate the nature of her own plunge. A phenomenal journey, the track begins with lightly shuffling drum n’ bass before expanding into an immense house groove.
“It’s Oh So Quiet,” basically an instrumentally faithful cover of a 1940s Betty Hutton big band number, was Björk’s biggest crossover moment ever, and if it’s usually rejected by most Björkheads, well, then that’s another testament to the extent she implores people to open up their musical horizons. Each track on Post reveals another emotional extreme: “Possibly Maybe,” an almost masturbatory ode to the wax and wane of love affairs; “Enjoy,” a dark and dubby dalliance with the seedier side of sexuality; and “I Miss You,” which should resonate with anyone familiar with the “Amor Omnia” speech in Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud. And in case some odd ducks still hadn’t caught on to Björk’s lost-in-a-costume-shop approach to public guises, Post came fully equipped with another barrage of music videos (six of the little buggers!), many of which have gone on to become classics, most notably Michel Gondry’s industrial wasteland “Army of Me” and Spike Jonze’s clodhopping tribute to Busby Berkeley and Jacques Demy, “It’s Oh So Quiet.”
Collaboration has always been an important aspect of Björk’s work ethic. Testifying to this is the fact that she has had romantic affairs with a great many of her colleagues (Tricky, Stephane Sednaoui…though probably not Lars von Trier). She also suggested that the Post remix album, Telegram, is, if anything, even more true to her personal vision than the prototype, despite having an even wider range of styles and producers (a shrieking, classical Brodsky Quartet “Hyper-Ballad” mingles with a distorted, NIN-like “Possibly Maybe” and a ghetto-blasting hip-hop “I Miss You”). For many, the delicate balance of Post represented the ultimate Björkian pop experience, and one that has yet to be topped. In fact, Björk’s next album, her 1997 glass-dragon Homogenic, indicated with one fell swoop that Björk had moved beyond pop into what one might call her own cloistered “genre of me.” The shimmering Vespertine, from 2001, suggested a move on Björk’s part to translate her own unique musical style back into the world of pop (with some fantastically emotional moments like “Undo” and “It’s Not Up to You”), but Post will likely always remain the Björk album that most successfully sustains her winning balance of experimental whimsy and solid pop magic.