Happy 25th Anniversary to Björk’s debut studio album Debut, originally released July 5, 1993.
25 years ago when I first heard about Björk’s Debut, I, like many others, was expecting The Sugarcubes 2.0, but we were all dead wrong. Her work as lead singer of the Sugarcubes is a far cry from her solo output. Debut is an eleven-song night out with a friend who, with great delight, takes you to every single bar, dance club and after-hours spot she can think of. The album’s beauty lies in the fact that it cannot be placed into one category. Debut comfortably slides in and out of genres from one song to the next without disturbing the flow, making the journey feel seamless.
The beginnings of what was to become Debut started in the late ‘80s when Björk moved to London and began exploring the city’s underground club scene. She once told BBC News’ Liam Allen, “I remember going to Manchester, and 808 State taking me around, and me just seeing things that I'd never seen—that I'd hoped existed. So I would be up until early morning...sometimes from just the enthusiasm for the music.” Accompanying her on these late night adventures was producer Derek Birkett, whom she had previously given a demo of her own songs.
This “research” gave Björk a whole new world to explore which led to her musical identity moving further away from The Sugarcubes. She remarked to Time Magazine in 2015, "As a music nerd, I just had to follow my heart, and my heart was those beats that were happening in England. And maybe what I'm understanding more and more as I get older, is that music like Kate Bush has really influenced me. Brian Eno. Acid. Electronic beats. Labels like Warp.”
By the time The Sugarcubes’ 1992 album Stick Around for Joy was released, it was inevitable that Björk’s time with the band was done. Half of what was to become Debut was already written, including the opening track “Human Behaviour.” While searching for a producer, Björk continued writing material with 808 State’s Graham Massey. Through her then boyfriend, DJ Dominic Thrupp, she was introduced to Soul II Soul and Massive Attack producer Nellee Hooper. The pair hit it off after discovering their ideas about the sound of Debut were very similar. The only thing left to do was to get in the studio and begin working.
Debut was recorded in the wake of the breakup of The Sugarcubes in 1992 following the band’s brief stint as the opening act for U2 on their Zoo TV tour. Without the restrictive nature of being in a band, Björk was allowed to explore everything. Björk and Hooper threw an insane mix of harps, techno beats and saxophones together to make a sound that was different yet familiar. One minute you think you’re hearing House music, and the next minute a harp is thrown into the mix.
The aforementioned and brilliant “Human Behavior” opens the album and features a tympani sampled from an Antonio Carlos Jobim song. It’s a smart and quirky observation of us very strange humans as seen through the eyes of an animal. The song was written in 1988 while Björk was still a member of The Sugarcubes. In an interview with David Hemingway, she once explained, “I wrote the melody for "Human Behaviour" as a kid. A lot of the melodies on Debut I wrote as a teenager and put aside because I was in punk bands and they weren't punk. The lyric is almost like a child's point of view and the video that I did with Michel Gondry was based on childhood memories.”
“If you ever get close to a human / And human behavior / Be ready, be ready to get confused / There's definitely, definitely, definitely no logic / To human behavior / But yet so, yet so irresistible.”
The next track, which is a favorite of mine, “Crying” is fascinating because behind the infectious and bouncy music is a tale describing feelings of alienation living in a big city. The way in which the piano and bass is used in the song is an effective and respectful nod to the House Music that was prevalent in the club scene in the states.
Another highlight is “There’s More To Life Than This,” an homage to dance clubs that was actually recorded in the bathrooms of London’s Milk Bar. The slick production gives the impression that Björk is gleefully going back and forth from the dancefloor to the bathroom.
“Like Someone In Love” gives us a peek into Björk’s love of jazz standards and particularly Chet Baker that would reveal itself even further on her future albums. It provides a nice break before we hop back on the dancefloor for “Big Time Sensuality” and “One Day,” which Björk said was inspired by “the records that DJs play at seven o’clock in the morning when they’re playing for themselves rather than clubbers.” “Aeroplane,” “Come To Me” and “Violently Happy” keep us moving until we reach the end of the album, which is “The Anchor Song,” an ode to her native Iceland. It’s the only song on the LP produced by Björk and it is a fitting send off for the listener.
At the time of its release, Debut was a welcome respite from the endless assembly line of Nirvana and Pearl Jam clones forced down our throats by unimaginative radio programmers and lazy record executives. It was representative of everything the music industry was not: fun and experimental. It made you dance even when you thought you didn’t feel like dancing.
The global critical reception was mostly positive, with American critics being mostly harsh. The most ridiculous review came from Michele Romero of Entertainment Weekly who wrote, "On a few songs, [Björk's] breathy mewl is a pleasant contrast to the mechanical drone of Sugarcube-like techno-tunes. But most of Debut sounds annoyingly like the monotonous plinking of a deranged music box. Wind it up if you like—eventually it will stop.” Clearly Michele did not get it and possibly may have never danced a day in her life.
Twenty-five years later, Debut is still the infectious bundle of creative joy it was when it was first released. Put it on now. I dare you not dance.