Post Turns 20
Here’s something you probably shouldn’t do: Listen to Vulnicura, the shatteringly sad family-breakup album that Björk released earlier this year, back-to-back with Post, the album she dropped 20 years ago tomorrow. Vulnicura is a great album, but it’s not an easy one to hear. It’s harsh and decentered and experimental and feverish and, again, shatteringly sad. It’s an album about watching your life, your family’s life, fall apart in front of you and not being able to do anything about it, and Björk makes you feel that loss deep in your gut. I really like Vulnicura, but I haven’t found myself listening to it very often in the months since its release, largely because I’m almost never in a mood to put myself through that. But Post? Post is an album I could happily bang every day for the next year. Post is an album about being so full of hope and love and possibility that you feel it all exploding out of you. It’s a world-conquerer, an album that radiates strength and joy. It’s not a one-note record. There are sad songs and angry songs and vulnerable songs and at least one breakup song. “Army Of Me,” the opening track and first single, is a song Björk wrote for her brother to tell him, if I’m reading it right, to pull his head out of his ass and stop asking for help all the time. But it doesn’t sound that way. It sounds like an anthem for someone getting ready to jump up in the air and smack planets out of the sky. It sounds like the thing you want playing in your headphones when you’re riding a chariot to the peak of Mount Olympus. It’s a song that erases doubt. By comparing the two, I don’t mean to suggest that Vulnicura presents a broken-down, destroyed Björk. That’s an album with its own sense of strength, and anyway it’s one that documents a very specific era in Björk’s life. By all accounts, she is absolutely in charge of her shit right now, and every magazine profile about her when Vulnicura came out seemed to revolve around some crazy night out on the town. Still, Vulnicura is an album that sounds like an emotionally devastated hangover. Post sounds like a fucking crazy night out.
It’s hard to overstate how explosively nuts Post sounded when it came out. Two decades later, we’re used to Björk’s volcanic vocals and her willingness to see any absurd idea through to its conclusion. But in 1995, all of this felt fresh and new. Björk had been around for a while, of course, first with the Sugarcubes and then on her own. Her voice was entirely her own, but she existed within a continuum. Debut, from 1993, was a strange and cultishly beloved album, but we had a framework for it. It seemed like the way-out cousin of Deee-Lite or of early-’90s Madonna, a club-pop album with a freaked-out edge. Post has its club-pop moments, but it also has free-jazz flare-ups and meditative strings and dubbed-out bass-burbles. (Tricky produced “Headphones” and made it sound weirder than any of the music he’d released under his own name. Well-played, Tricky!) “Army Of Me” had that steamroller synth-bass groove, like Nine Inch Nails mainlining Pixie Stix. The climax of “Isobel,” my favorite song on the album, came when its orchestra hits its crescendo, bombing in with a string figure that seems like it belongs on the Lawrence Of Arabia score. And then there’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” the berserk big-band Betty Hutton cover. I could be making this memory up, but I’m pretty sure that the first time I heard it, I cackled like an idiot for several minutes and then high-fived someone. The album had so many ideas, and they all seemed to burst in out of nowhere.
But for an album as way-out and experimental as this, Post is incredibly friendly and easy to like. It has serious hooks. It has a sense of momentum. It’s not an album that challenges you, exactly; it’s more one that can’t wait to show you another cool thing that you might not know about. There were plenty of people in the ’90s who were making albums that had as much fun jumping over genre lines as Björk was. But none of those albums sounded like this much fun. Cibo Matto, say, could pile as many different genres into a single track, but they couldn’t turn all that into the sort of song you’d find yourself singing in the shower later on. Post was a big deal. It was an album that topped charts around the world, one that went platinum in a country as difficult to please as the U.S. And even if Post didn’t dominate airwaves in the same way that it did in the UK or Australia, it was still inescapable in other ways. You’d hear bits of it at unexpected times, like the way VH1 would use the “Possibly Maybe” intro to soundtrack its late-night commercial bumpers. This was, in some fundamental way, a pop album.
In a lot of ways, Post was the platonic ideal of a sophomore album. It had enough Debut-era dance-pop in it that it still sounded like the work of the same person, and those pop moments were strong enough to prove that Debut wasn’t a fluke. But the album also blew Björk’s previously-established sound out into something way, way bigger and more impressive. In its 11 tracks, it presented 11 completely different images of what Björk could do. And it established Björk’s persona in ways that Debut simply couldn’t do. The videos were a big part of that. I can’t think of a single album that inspired a better set of music videos than Post. Björk was working with visionary-genius types like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze when they were at their peak, and she was getting all their best ideas and still getting her own enormous personality across completely. The videos for “It’s Oh So Quiet” and “Hyper-Ballad” were the sort of things you’d be hoping to come across if you stayed up all night watching MTV, and when Jonze and Gondry released those Directors’ Label DVDs a few years later, they were some of the best reasons to buy the things. After Post, every single Björk album has focused hard one some particular idea, some shade of her sound. And that’s fine, since she proved with this one that she could do just about anything.
Other than the way it helped us get to know Björk, it’s hard to call Post an influential album, exactly. Nobody really could sound like Björk; her voice was too furiously unique for that. And anyway, she didn’t really have a signature sound to rip off or to build on. But I do think Post made the world a safer place for some of the wiggier forms of pop music that followed. Alt-rock radio was fully in thrall to grunge by the time Post came out, and it was sounding more and more like depressive guitar-trudge territory. Post seemed to represent a way out to kids who identified with that stuff, a signal that smart music didn’t have to sound like some dude mashing an effects pedal. I don’t know if Björk was a direct influence on, say, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, though I wouldn’t be surprised. (Tim did sample “Jóga” on Missy’s “Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee” remix a few years later, and he worked with Björk on a couple of Volta tracks.) But it’s more that the presence of an album like Post probably helped white rock dorks like me hear Missy and Tim as the visionaries that they were once they came along. It’s an album that opened up possibilities, that made connections you might not have made on your own.
Eight years ago, Stereogum posted a full-album tribute to Post, with bands like Dirty Projectors, Liars, and Atlas Sound covering every song on the original. This site has done that a few other times, with albums like the Strokes’ Is This It? and R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People. But that approach probably makes more sense for Post than it does for almost any other album. Post is an album that contains multitudes, that switches things up on every song but still finds a way to make it all fit together. It might not sound as weird or alien as it once did, but it’s got an energy that hasn’t dissipated in 20 years. That’s something to celebrate. So let’s watch some of those fucking great videos now.