Following her debut adult album*, the succinctly titled Debut, Björk moved from Iceland to the UK where she became somewhat promiscuous, musically. Post, released on June 16 1995, was the result of some sweet sonic dalliances.
When it arrived, the eagerly awaited Debut was a departure from Bjork’s previous incarnation as vocalist for alt-rock band The Sugarcubes. It was a great album, an instant classic. Less rowdy as a solo artist, Björk now brimmed with an optimistic tone. Rooted in dance tunes and toying with experimentation there was a unifying euphoria. Even in the more melancholic or surprising passages the focus remained, and we were taken on an unfamiliar but ultimately safe journey. Things got different, very different with Post.
At the time of recording, Björk considered Debut and Post to sit in sequence with each other. Debut was simply that–the first statement of solo intent, driven by ambition, creative hunger, and overall celebratory in tone. Alternately, Post plays with it’s own complex connotations. In one sense the collection is a reference to the artist’s musical position following her move to the UK, in another sense it’s a reference to dispatching her updates from time and place. The album artwork shows the singer against a background of abstract buildings, constructed from postcards whilst she wears a white shirt with blue and red trim, reflecting the edges of a British postage stamp. This was an album all about time, place, and old-fashioned communication.
Upon release, Post was held aloft as a kind of musical prism. “Promiscuous” was Björk’s own word when describing the album. Its influences are far reaching; it’s multi-facing directions are borne from a series of collaborations. Contributing producer register lists Nellee Hooper, Graham Massey, Tricky, Howie B, and Marius de Vries. Soundscapes and textures are multi-tracked to create visual sounds, and accompanying visual artwork was musical in sense. If Debut was a statement of “This is who I am”, Post is a statement of “And this is where I go exploring”
Björk would stroll the beaches, caves, and rock pools capturing her vocal musings into a battery powered mic.
Keen to capture a natural vibe to the album, producer Nellee Hooper, who had worked on Debut, suggested that Björk’s vocal tracks be recorded outside, beyond the normal restrictions of a studio. Initial plans to record in the hills of Italy were thwarted by wintry weather across Europe, and so Björk and her recording entourage were forced to regroup and make the arduous journey all the way to, erm… The Bahamas. Björk would stroll the beaches, caves, and rock pools capturing her vocal musings into a battery powered mic. This approach toward physical freedom within process is reflected in the results. It’s easy to raise an eyebrow at the required trip to a tropical island paradise, but this approach displays a new self-confidence from the artist. Previously the product of personal ambitions shaped by others, here the singer removes her craft from conventional process. She takes the essential piece of equipment required to do her job and returns with her creations. It’s an approach that also reflects the resultant album; “I’m going over here–wandering around through the interesting places–you can come. I have no map; we’re strangers here, but it’s beautiful.”
Arguably, the best-known track from the album is “It’s Oh So Quiet”. It’s a song, which, in a sequence of contrasting tunes, is the least like all the others. Released as a novelty single ahead of Christmas 1995, the big band tune remains the artist’s best selling single, worldwide. Amongst abrasive beats, industrial smudges, and quasi-pop across the rest of the album here was a strange olde-worlde cornerstone of brass and swing. The song was a tribute to Betty Hutton, who released the tune in 1951, itself a version of an old German tune performed by Horst Winter. The accompanying video was shot by Spike Jonze, and reflected the Hollywood musical and good old song-and-dance numbers of yesteryear. Visual and sonic joy is here in abundance.
In contrast to the obvious commercial momentum of “It’s Oh So Quiet” the rest of the album demands listeners do some work. Pleasurable work, but challenging all the same–there are dark passages of uncertainty and risk. Inspired by a dream, “Hyperballad” describes how a person hides their inner, destructive nature by hurling objects from a cliff top. “Enjoy” was co-produced with ex-Massive Attack member, Tricky, with whom Björk enjoyed a personal relationship. It’s a tune that carries black treacle along on a train-like tempo. This is darkness all lit up by a string of the singer’s wishes: “I wish: I want to stay here / I wish: this be enough / I wish: I only love you / I wish: simplicity.” The abruptness of the song’s conclusion is as jarring as anything achieved by imagist lyrics elsewhere on the album.
Joined by 808 State’s DJ Graham Massey for the album opener “Army of Me”, Björk pushes a weird blend of growl, anger, and punishing encouragement. Michel Gondry directed a killer video of surreal gorilla dentistry and a larger-than-life juggernaut with it’s own gnashing teeth. Visually and musically it’s a track that kicked open the door and announced, not subtly, that things were in the process of change. From this playfully abrasive start, the album explores an entire pallet of colors, from techno and drum and bass to the classic use of harpsichord, Indian percussion, and traditional pop melodies. If Björk dressed like a lady in love with the fancy dress shopkeeper, she wrote songs like the lover of the inventor of the shuffle button.
Released in a year when a silly sales-figures battle between Blur and Oasis dominated the UK media, and when the US charts didn’t dare stray too far from convention (Radio-friendly R&B in one corner and MOR Rock inhabiting the other) Post emerged with its lungs filled with indie-scene ethics. but with a belly filled with commercial abilities. Eventually hitting platinum or gold in all significant markets, it’s an album that rewarded the weirdness and bravery of an artist intent on heading her own way, regardless of who would follow.
Given the canon of work from Björk, is it really safe to consider Post as a classic? Would it be wiser to reserve that title for other titles in her catalog–the more experimental, the more cohesively structured? Who makes these decisions, anyway?! Well, look… this is an album that suggested what would follow without being weaker than what would follow. This is not some junior version of Vespertine or Medula, this is a fully grown beast in its own right. This is an album where a new confidence emerged to deliver the promises of ambition. Björk employed everything she had learned from music to go beyond common understanding. It’s an album that chose to ignore expectation, market restrictions, and contemporary trends. The singer pushed her vocal performances into new places, where no other vocalists could dare to sing. Music audiences were hit like they were hit years before when Hendrix asked “Are you Experienced?” and set the benchmark for what was possible when you take tradition and set it on fire. The masterstroke of the collection is in the thread that ties each disparate view into one singular perspective. Yes–these tunes work independently and can flourish as remixes and dance floor classics–but as a whole this album is simply genius.
As a whole this album is simply genius.
Back in 1995, some people didn’t get Björk. 20 years later some people still don’t get Björk. Go play those folks Post nice and loud, and watch as they recognize how modern music is slowly catching up with one of its bravest innovators.
*For the sake of focus let’s pass quickly over Björk’s ‘real’ first album. The ‘self-titled’ Björk, released when the artist was just 12 years old was a project that the artist was unhappy with, saying; “I was a kid. My name was on the album, but those were not my songs.”
IMAGES: One Little Indian, Barry Marsden