Debut Turns 20
At this point, Björk has been so esteemed for so long, and she’s followed her own muse down so many rabbit holes, that she basically exists outside the context of circa-2013 music. She might show up to play your festival, but she’ll do it wearing a gigantic spiky helmet that makes her look like one of the Cenobites from Hellraiser, and she’ll bring an Icelandic choir with her. She’s not staying up on dance-music subgenres, and she doesn’t know Kendrick Lamar is — or, if she is keeping up, she’s not letting it show in her music or her public persona. So it’s pretty fascinating to listen to Debut, the not-actually-a-debut album that turns 20 tomorrow, and realize that it’s entirely a product of its dance-music moment.
In 1993, house music was quickly turning into pop music, and it was taking on some of the lushness and the session-musician sheen of the disco that had, in some ways, birthed it. It was starting to branch off into tributaries. Within a few years, goofball Euro-house would be its own thing, and so would acid-jazz and Deep Forest-ish fake-worldbeat, as well as the trip-hop and IDM that Björk embraced on Post, her 1995 follow-up. And on Debut, you can hear distant echoes of all those subgenres, but they hadn’t yet broken free from the primal thump of four-on-the-floor house music. Even as dance music took on all these new sounds, that basic pulse was still the most important thing about it, and that pulse reverberates all through Debut. Björk, after all, had been deep into rave music even when she was still in the Sugarcubes, the euphoric late-era new wave band she’d been leading. She was hanging out with Rabbit In The Moon, recording guest vocals for 808 State, going to raves. She probably wore overalls and a Dr. Seuss hat at some point. And on Debut, she had the guy who co-produced Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life” giving her beats.
The influence of Nellee Hooper, Björk’s main Debut collaborator, couldn’t be more important to the album. Hooper had scored a bunch of hits that married dance thump with wandering, questioning sensibilities. He knew how to turn experimental impulses into slick pop music, and he’d already do it for people like Massive Attack and Sinead O’Connor. He gave her that sophisticated boom. Any DJ could transition “Big Time Sensuality,” probably still my favorite Björk single, into, for instance, Crystal Waters’ equally great “100% Pure Love” just fine, and that was Hooper’s doing. On her own, Björk might’ve landed on a completely different sound. Björk was an art-kid as well as a raver, and she’d been hoping to make a whole album with the veteran free-jazz group Art Ensemble Of Chicago, whose Oliver Lake did supply many of the album’s delightfully wiggy arrangements. And on hazily floating late-album tracks like “Aeroplane” and “The Anchor Song,” we can hear the giddy risk-taker that Björk would eventually become. But Hooper, more than anyone else, helped Björk find her pop-music voice, translating her inimitable yip into something that sounded both new and friendly to early-’90s kids like me.
It’s kind of fun to imagine what might’ve happened if Debut had come out a couple of years after Hooper’s dance-pop moment, if Björk would’ve somehow turned into La Bouche or Ace Of Base or whatever. But no, that would’ve never happened. Björk was too sharp a songwriter, and her instincts were too weird. And then there was that voice, which sounded like nobody else before or since. The first time I heard “Human Behavior” on the radio, I guessed that it was the Sugarcubes — not because I was terribly familiar with the Sugarcubes or Björk, but because I knew the Sugarcubes were Icelandic, and I’d heard a bunch of Icelandic accents during a 12-hour airport layover in Keflavik. That voice sounded wild, fanciful, capable of transmitting emotions that leaden American intonations just couldn’t contain. With that voice and those ideas, she would’ve been fine. But Debut was an ideal context for that voice, especially for those of us who were hearing it for the first time.
House music didn’t quite have critical respect before Björk came along, and plenty of American writers didn’t know what to make of the sound of Debut when it came out. In his doofus Rolling Stone review, one Tom Graves called the album “painfully eclectic,” and wrote that Hooper “sabotaged a ferociously iconoclastic talent with a phalanx of cheap electronic gimmickry.” Debut didn’t just establish Björk; it helped make sounds like that cool to a segment of the music-dork universe that might’ve remained deaf to its charms otherwise. At this point, it’s virtually impossible to imagine a big publication slamming an adventurous dance-pop album for “cheap electronic gimmickry,” and Debut is a big part of that change. On her last few albums, Björk has slowly edged her way into artistic indulgence, losing the primal pop-music joy that helped make Debut and Post so great. Listening to Debut now, I wish Björk could find some way to reconnect to that thump, or to its 2013 equivalent. (Trap-rave, I guess? This could also be awful.) So it’s good for Björk that Debut came out when it did. And it’s good for us, too.