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20 YEARS SINCE BJORK'S 'POST' — WHERE MAINSTREAM MUSIC COULD HAVE GONE

Iceland seems like a strange place. With its weird language and pale blond people living in toy houses it has forged a society rich in social justice and human rights. But, the place is also known for its suicide rates and alcoholism.

In Iceland, there’s a big volcano with an unpronounceable name and a smaller one with a crinkly, head-turning voice that stops traffic. The latter is relatively easy to pronounce: Bjork. Her second studio album Post, captured the possibilities of a pop sensibility married to the experimental and won a rare victory for creativity and individualism in a music world soaked in convention. When it was released in June 1995, the world didn’t quite know what hit it. Bit like that volcano.

By 1995, Bjork, then 30, had been around a while. Her first recorded effort was as an 11 year-old. As singer for the Icelandic pop band The Sugarcubes, she had tasted some international success. Also, the pop world had been able to sample her odd, fractured voice and compelling elfin look..

Her first album, Debut (1993 — Bjork’s unchallenged creativity doesn’t seemingly stretch to album titles) showcased her ability to mould esoteric structures and tones into mainstream music shapes. Largely dance oriented, Debut made her a major global act and arguably Iceland’s most famous export ever.

Post is in some way Bjork’s acknowledgement of what had happened to her in the few years since Debut. Her life was now divided into before and after global success. Her life now was after, post, all that had gone before, and nothing would ever be the same again. It was also a nod to a new musical direction.

The remarkable Debut sounds like an overt pitch to a mainstream dance-floor demographic and was perhaps less challenging musically. Finally, for Bjork herself, Post was a missive sent to her now large fan base. Apparently, the red and blue aerogram style of the collar she wears on the cover is meant to emphasise the sense of an emotional “posting”, like a letter.

Post announces itself with Army of Me. In this track, the denser sound Bjork is exploring is laid down. A song of defiance and personal power, Army of Me marches along with heavy boots over the map of human relationships. Even Bjork’s voice seems a little harsher and matured; the delicate tones now a little crushed by the fat, trippy tones of the electronic troops marching behind it.

The softness is back though with Hyperballad, an achingly beautiful song floating on waves of the kind of experimental sound-scape Bjork was by now becoming well known for.

The Modern Things is a stand out and somewhat epitomises Bjork’s vocal eccentricities and anti-pop lyrical directions. Everything already exists, she sings, even modernity. Nothing’s new. It’s all just been hidden in a mountain. But the illogical melodic shapes she throws, along with her Icelandic accent on words like “cars”, “dabbling” or “existed” that sound like new words in her mouth, are unique. Lapses into trippy speaking-in-tongues lyrics — Icelandic? — only bolster this extraordinary vocal performance. It’s for reasons like this Bjork must be one of the least covered major pop acts in history.

The next track, It’s Oh So Quiet, is one that is covered, often, usually by those seeking to add a quirky arrow in their quiver. It’s one of her best known songs but it probably doesn’t really capture her essence. It’s a big band vibe and a fairly ragged, borderline shrill, vocal.

Enjoy, You’ve Been Flirting Again and Isobel, each exquisite in their own right, are as different from each other as they are from other tracks. By now implications of the choice to bring in a multiplicity of producers, from Tricky to Graham Massey to Nellee Hooper and Bjork herself are becoming clear. Each song is a world unto itself, neither building on nor drawing from any other track.

Thematically, it’s very personal and individual. Musically, it’s cross-genre to the extent that it’s no genre. None, it seems could hope to frame Bjork.

Possibly, Maybe is another stare-away track, capturing the crazy phrasing, poetic lyrics and deep musical universe that Bjork moves through in her space cadet way.

I Miss You builds a great lyric concept — that of being in love with someone you haven’t yet met, and subsequently missing someone you don’t know — on an electronic peat bog of horns, moogy sounds and off kilter drum beats 

Cover Me is a surreal sound poem, layered and short and Headphones finishes the album in similarly jagged gentleness, like you’ve just been attacked by a chainsaw made of pillows.

It’s hard to explain how Post holds together. Its appeal is almost beyond articulation. It is a beautiful mess, a madman’s breakfast of gourmet treats. Listening to it is like walking in a forest of views, each corner revealing new horizons and the expectation of the next wonder holding you until the end. Where pretension might have been expected, a sort of polished humility is found. Things sometimes go off the rails, but you are happy to plunge into the darkness, because the fall is exciting and the landing, soft.

The wonder of Post and of Bjork is that this is the most unlikely of successes. She is a swinging Hail Mary from the creatives among the listening audience that mass music tends to ignore at worst, and patronise at best. That her sound on Post is not immediately knowable makes it more akin to forms of classical music, the kind that needs a few listens to appreciate the depth and the aural complexity in the air.

Post is where mainstream music could have gone. While modern chart music hasn’t gone there entirely, Bjork opened up the space for a more enigmatic and less readily labelled style; she undoubtedly helped broaden the playing field.

Modern music still, regularly, finds itself, like a dinosaur stuck in a tar pit, going nowhere and heading for extinction. Yet, there are pockets of air that artists like Bjork — and those before her like Kate Bush — have pumped full of oxygen for the next generations of rare, raw and intense female talents — the Lordes and Sias of the world — to breath.

In this way, the album title is a misnomer. Bjork was a precursor rather than a late comer, less post than pre. Post stands today as a body of work that still informs the more marginal artistic fringes of modern music and reminds us how narrow and staid our world would be without outliers like Bjork.

 Previously by James Rose: 20 years since Silverchair’s Frogstomp

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