The eclectic Icelandic singer broke out as a solo artist with a kaleidoscope of sounds neatly packaged for the masses.
Björk’s art-pop masterpiece Debut – released 25 years ago on July 5, 1993 — still sounds like a color-burst hodgepodge of both wide-eyed naiveté and expert craft a quarter-century later, more rambunctious and unfettered than a kindergarten playpen, but with a veteran's eye for packaging for mass consumption. It oozes a wow-I-just-discovered-everything-and-it’s-all-so-wonderful-and-fun vibe, yet it remains far more urgent now than the grunge and Britpop works that served as the 27-year-old's alt-pop savant's chart competition at the time.
Musically, it's everywhere. It skips from the late-'80s dance scene (including elements of techno, trip-hop, and house) to jazz, acid jazz, world beat, opera, classical, African, and beyond. But the set ends up far more than the sum of its parts, thanks to Björk’s bubbling-over persona and trademark ascending, emotionally carpet-bombing vocal performances.
Like most first official solo LPs, Debut is a culmination of ideas stretching back to her earliest days as a songwriter. Back then, as she began playing with punk bands in Iceland in the '80s, including Spit and Snot, KUKL and most notably, college-rock favorites The Sugarcubes, she began to realize the limitations of their sounds. None were fits for the whirling dervish of music in Björk’s head – a sound she’d been developing on the side since she was a small girl, one who'd even released an Icelandic-language self-titled album of covers and originals as an 11-year-old in 1977.
So, Björk left for England, where she reveled in the late-‘80s/early-‘90s dance scene, and cut demos with Graham Massey of Manchester electronic outfit 808 State. At the same time, she indulged her love of other forms of music, recording jazz standards with harpist/composer Corky Hale (including “I Remember You” and an early version of “Like Someone in Love”). But these eclectic sounds all called for an element of consistency, a bowtie over the box. Enter Nellee Hooper, esteemed producer behind artists like Sinead O’Connor and Massive Attack. Hooper, who would go on to work with megastars like U2 and Madonna, brought a steady pop sheen — one Björk was initially hesitant to embrace – to the variety of sounds here, tying an otherwise deeply chaotic album into something that flows up, down, all over the place, but all together at once.
The 11 tracks for Debut were pulled together in studios from London to Mumbai to Los Angeles, with engineer Marius de Vries also helping Björk mold her songs with a modern vision, one full of synths, electronics and studio wizardry. It opens with “Human Behavior,” a mysterious jam written when Björk was just a teenager, sounding as if mined from the depths of the Amazon Jungle or the Arctic North — both? — with tribal drums and clanging ice flutes. It hikes to an emotional peak with the singer chanting about just how fucked up, moody and insane we all are. This is how we welcome solo, adult Björk to the world.
Next, “Crying,” we see the London big city life through the eyes and ears of our impressionable 20-something, perhaps isolated or confused by her new home: “I travel all around the city / Go in and out of locomotives / All alone / There’s no one here / And people everywhere.” Its engine is a four-on-the-floor dance rhythm and hummable dun-dahhhhhhhhhhhhh melody. Then she gets straight up sex-as-a-mystical-experience on “Venus as a Boy,” one of the LP’s most tender and downright explicit tunes. Over a nightlight electric key melody, sweeping strings and clanging percussion, she unfurls about the heavens of seduction: “His wicked sense of humor/ Suggests exciting sex/ His fingers they focus on her… He believes in beauty.”
And after all that partying in peak-ecstasy England, Björk wants to dance: “There’s More to Life Than This” is a house-party banger all about how much bangin’ house parties suck: “There’s more to life than this,” she whispers to her friend, as you can almost imagine them in feather boas, ducking and diving past partygoers in a massive London warehouse. They sneak off into the bathroom and whisper: “I could make a boat and sneak off to this island,” and “Let’s go down to the harbor and jump between the boats. There’s more to life than this.”
But then there’s “Big Time Sensuality,” perhaps the album’s pulsating heart, a dance floor fire-starter with a melody to die for. Keys jump and beats bounce, as our protagonist is again in love and in lust and screaming about it: “I can sense it / Something important is about to happen… It takes courage to enjoy it / The hardcore and the gentle / Big time sensuality.” The melody of the chorus brings you nearly as high.
Youthful discovery is the soul of Debut. On “Like Someone in Love,” she finds it in an old jazz standard, going full operatic over heart-destroying harps. Then on “One Day,” she finds it in a deep-space musical exploration of dance beats, baby talk, and mystical visions of erupting volcanoes. “Aeroplane” is a free jazz freakout about following your heart, while “Come to Me” has Björk playing earth momma, protecting a loved one as much as discovering herself. The closer, “Anchor Song,” is a cacophony of horns with Björk getting elemental: “I live by the ocean/ And during the night/ I dive into it/ Down to the bottom/ Underneath all currents/ And drop my anchor/ This is where I’m staying / This is my home.”
On Debut, Björk gives us all the ingredients should would go on to explore over nearly three more decades — art and pop, often in unequal amounts, and perhaps never again as balanced as they were here. She’d go on to release another solid gold LP, Post, in 1995, before steering her ship more towards art than commerce, a decision that’d bring us everything from the warm IDM lullabies of 2001’s Vespertine to the more avant-garde electronic balladry of 2017’s Utopia, and all the wild sounds and looks in between.
Do yourself a favor and revisit this album today: Debut marks the expansive beginnings to one of the most exciting careers in modern music, while lobbing bombs on the dance floor and throwing anchors into the depths of your heart.