Debut by Björk

My eldest sister loved Debut and that’s how I knew it was something special. “A” had listened to music but by the time she left school and got a job in the factory, it was something purely functional for her, an incidental backing track for her adventures in Björk Papa Docs, the infamous Cumbernauld shithole that also doubled as our best nightclub. Not that it had much competition. There was Sax, Reflections, and a few pubs that were often raided in the early hours. When she bough a CD, it was something of an event. She’d listen loud and then sort of…forget she even had it there on a pile on top of other CDs. The Trainspotting soundtrack was another one of those albums. My sister is one of those consumers who buy that one CD a year that everyone buys and forgets. Artists and the industry alike benefit from the mercurial attachment my sister (and others like her) have with music. The Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby was played in an intense burst before meekly accepting it’s fate. And where do you think all the sales of Dido’s No Angel came from? Listeners like my sister are the backbone of album sales in this country. Britpop would spark more in my sister for music, but at that point she was mainly casual.

Debut by Björk, however, was slightly different. It lasted longer than all the others. I heard it being blasted from two speakers in my sister’s bedroom and wondered who the hell was singing like that? The yelps and squeals and lilts of joyous energy with a techno backing track absolutely became my thing. Goodness, there were strings too! Lush string arrangements. Crazy, I thought. Then: who is that?

When my sister went out to work, I immediately had to investigate the face and name behind the voice. First thing I noticed as the thick ring of old tea on the CD case. My sister was never one for the iconography of music. A plastic box in the dimensions of 142 by 125 by 10 millimetres served as a perfect tea coaster so why not use it? I was horrified. My things were always neatly packed and well-arranged. Books, CDs, tapes, videos, toys. We shared the same blood, air, parents, and toilet but we definitely didn’t share an appreciation of our things. I treated my books, CDs, tapes, videos, toys like family, because they meant everything. These things were my escape from the house that stifled me. Once I’d removed the stain, I got to see the cover photograph. A woman with a woolly jumper and dark hair framing an elfin face. Her name? Huh…how did I pronounce it? Badly, to be honest. Oh, I tried several times. Bi-joh-ruk. Bay-yurk. Buh-jorrrk. Like her music, Björk’s name was constantly shifting. It was only when I heard Jools Holland say it aloud on his show that I had a definitive pronunciation. In saying that, I’ve heard other people say it differently.

Now I had the CD, I wanted to hear it close up. The inner booklet gave a sense of an artist who had traveled – one shot depicts a girl holding a toy sail boat, the next shows another version of the same girl looking up at something we’re never going to see, then there’s Björk holding herself against the camera. All iconic photographs, especially the front cover which has inspired and been parodied in equal measure. If I hadn’t already heard some of the songs, I would have assumed Björk was a folk artist. Something I’m not sure she gets enough credit for is expanding the visual language of dance music. Pre-Björk, dance songs were packaged with industrial artwork, sometimes hard and harsh, other times plain and functional. Suddenly an angora sweater could be worn by an artist with trip-hop, dance, electronica, and techno songs in the track list. All this I didn’t realise at the time.

Track one, Human Behaviour, kicked off my love affair with Björk in style. Her vocals immediately felt right and I never had a problem listening to her voice, unlike Spitting Image, the bastards. Anyway, song after song passed by, not one of them skipped, all impossible to pass by. I had a moment of disbelief when There’s More To Life suddenly becomes a live commentary in a nightclub toilet cubicle, the sort of ‘breaking the wall’ moment I’d never really experienced before – it made me want to find out if she really did record that verse live in some grotty toilet in London. I expect she probably did.

Possibly the most important part of the album came with Big Time Sensuality. That was the one my sister kept blasting aloud, the song which first stopped me in the upstairs hall. I couldn’t relate to a song about one night stands and living life so freely, but the great thing about amazing pop music is that it can make you enjoy even the wildest subject matter so long as the melody is strong. However, one lyric really was a moment of mind-shifting power for me. Later, I learned it changed a lot of people. This is also the power of pop music, the ability to reshape minds and perspectives.

I don’t know my future after this weekend
And I don’t want to.

For someone who valued – and still values – structure in my daily life, living through timetables and routine, a boy who was fearful of the future…this was revelatory, a deep breath point in time. I don’t know my future after this weekend and I don’t want to. That was me in words. In a sense, Björk gave me permission to not be so intense about where life would lead me. Really, I didn’t need to know.

Of the other songs, I particularly loved One Day, which dripped in slow bits, each beat relaxed in a chilly drift. Vocally, Björk is more insistent. I repeated this one quite a bit. Come To Me and Violently Happy were also two very strong favourite tracks on an album packed with hits. Play Dead, however, wasn’t on there. I don’t remember hearing it. I’ve since bought my own version of Debut and Play Dead is there at the end, tacked on yet feeling perfectly in place. A bonus track, I learned. Probably the best bonus track ever.

Björk would ascend and inspire with more music and sometimes she goes in directions I’d struggle to follow, but the journey itself is always just as interesting as the music. For me, an old Björk fan, her first three albums will always be the ones to hear. They’re all times in my life and somehow endure, even when some of their contemporaries fell into the back of the CD box. I found Björk almost by chance but I would have discovered her regardless. My sister doesn’t listen to Björk at all now (or much music), but I know if I played this album somewhere in her vicinity, she’d love it just as much as she did back in the ’90s, a testament to brilliant music, her taste, and the mark of an iconic debut. Of the one-a-year CDs my sister chose, I’m glad she chose that one.

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