Treble 100: No. 32, Björk – Post

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Björk Post - Treble 100

An account I don’t quite remember, from an ostensibly less cretinous version of Twitter that no longer quite exists, once shared a long string of emojis: a woman, a mountain, a cloud, a wheel, a bottle, a knife, a fork, rocks, etc. The only explanation given: Björk.

It takes a minute or so to see the link—it’s a deeper cut than a woman and a swan, for instance—but the imagery is drawn from “Hyperballad,” a standout song from Björk’s sophomore album Post. In its narrative, Björk imagines herself ascending a mountain while her partner is asleep, and undergoes a ritual of purging, walking up to the precipice and hurling objects off the edge, “Like car parts, bottles and cutlery.” It’s almost absurd to imagine, this person quietly rising in the stillness of dawn for the sake of throwing heaps of garbage into an abyss. But the resolution is one of security and well-being, confessing that she pushes herself to fling projectiles into the void, “So I can feel happier/To feel safe with you.”

It speaks volumes about Björk’s unconventional vision truly that such a peculiar piece of songwriting can be so recognizable even in nonverbal form. “Hyperballad” was only a minor hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Dance Club chart but coming nowhere near the Hot 100, yet it’s become a signature song for the singular Icelandic artist, a moment in which disparate, even contradictory instincts all come together in unlikely, rapturous harmony, an honest and vulnerable core wrapped in orchestral techno armor.

By age 29, when Post was released, Björk had already experienced something on the order of a half-dozen careers in music. In her early twenties she fronted The Sugarcubes, releasing her first all-time great song with 1988’s “Birthday” and subsequently opening for U2 a few years later. A visit to the Icelandic Punk Museum in Reykjavik, converted from a former public bathroom, further details her early post-punk years as a teenager in bands like Tappi Tíkarrass and KUKL. Even her debut album, Debut, was—technically speaking—her third, following a folk-pop album she made as a child and a seldom-heard jazz record she made in 1990 between Sugarcubes records.

It makes perfect sense that Björk recorded and released Post just before turning 30, an age when energy, fearlessness and confidence all seem to intersect.

Her actual but not literal debut, Debut, however, lived up to the importance of its title by delivering on the promise of Björk’s arrival as a solo artist. The 1993 album saw Björk immersing herself in the sounds of trip-hop and house music, collaborating with producer Nellee Hooper on a set of beat-driven songs heavily inspired by the music she’d been hearing in clubs, as well as records by Brian Eno, Kate Bush and artists on the Warp Records roster. Bearing little to no resemblance to any of Björk’s prior projects or releases, it offered up one of the most significant of many reinventions throughout her four-decade career.

Post, released two years later, presented a more extensive exploration of Björk’s artistic impulses and internal self. It’s an album that juxtaposes big sounds with contrastingly vulnerable emotions, a reflection of her new surroundings after relocating to London, looking beyond the club—either rock or discotheque—and probing a vast, chromatic and aural palette while somehow finding a way to unite its most contradictory sounds and distant points through a kind of sly introspection. Björk described the album as being her most “promiscuous,” in part because of how she brought so many different collaborators into her unique vision: Tricky, Howie B, 808 State’s Graham Massey, Brazilian composer and arranger Eumir Deodato and so on. Perhaps more accurately it’s a reflection of the many aspects of her own identity: defiant, complex, somehow both insular and extroverted. The entirety of Björk, both as an artist and as an individual, can be heard on Post.

As a 15-plus-year veteran of the music industry at just under 30 years old, Björk’s abilities were never in doubt. But perhaps more than anything, Post reinforced the uniqueness of her perspective. We perhaps take for granted that the aesthetic and stylistic hybrids on Post—merging trip-hop with orchestration, pop with industrial, avant garde electronic music with a more mainstream-friendly approach to songwriting—which came to be the norm in both alternative music and even well beyond that sphere in the years that followed. Still, there weren’t many songs prior to this album—by anyone—that sounded much like “Army of Me,” a buzzing industrial stomp backed by a John Bonham drum loop that saw the petite Icelander laying down the law with intimidating fury: “And if you complain once more/You’ll meet an army of me.

Where “Army of Me” outfitted Björk in battle armor, the ambient twinkle of “Possibly Maybe” lays bare her vulnerability, her daydreams of unrequited love turning to bitterness: “After a while I wonder/Where’s that love you promised me?” And in the grimy, sweaty grind of “Enjoy,” she attempts to reconcile physical attraction with self-conciousness, an effort to be in the moment (“sex without touching” is the phrase she uses, but you get the sense that, yes, there will be some touching involved).

The broader musical palette that Björk draws from likewise allows her to explore a more complete range of emotions beyond big-time sensuality, though there’s no question that there’s plenty of that to go around. On the brief “Cover Me,” in which Björk recorded her vocals in a cave during recording sessions at Nassau’s Compass Point Studios (after what was then a recent renovation and reopening of the temporarily shuttered hideaway), she sings, “I’m going hunting for mysteries.” By and large, she finds them, frequently wrapped in idiosyncratic stylistic choices and haunting arrangements. Teeming with bright bursts of horns and hypnotic layers of percussion, “I Miss You” imagines an ideal partner that might not even exist, playfully accompanied by an animated video in which her head is bitten off by piranhas. Meanwhile, the left-field hit “It’s Oh So Quiet” is an update of a 1951 Betty Hutton vocal jazz song that hits reset at the halfway point, its brassy sound and punctuations of unfiltered screams a startling attempt to shock the audience, and the bane of karaoke DJs worldwide.

Where much of the record reflected the charged energy of metropolitan London or the freedom and openness of the Bahamas, “Isobel” is the rare moment that’s definitively Icelandic. Composed while visiting Reykjavik for Christmas, “Isobel” features Björk’s first lyrics to be written collaboratively with Icelandic poet Sjón, a magical realist fairy tale about a girl born in a forest with a message intended for city dwellers (“In a forest pitch dark/Glowed the tiniest spark“). Björk has explained that its story takes place in South America, but it sounds like Iceland, a pristine landscape of perpetual winter darkness and unspoiled beauty—and a preview of sorts for Homogenic, her similarly breathtaking 1997 album that followed Post.

And then, of course, there’s “Hyperballad,” an absolute miracle of a song, transforming from a soft-patter lullaby into a heavy dancefloor pulse and again into a work of orchestral majesty. It’s a wondrous piece of music, often hailed as Björk’s single greatest moment and rightly so, even when it has limitless competition. It’s also, perhaps in spite of its whimsical imagery of a woman jettisoning junk down a mountainside, immensely relatable as a grown adult, more so than when I first heard the song as a teenager. I know I’m not alone in having been that person, wide awake in the predawn hours as my partner sleeps, my head full of anxieties and debris and wanting nothing more to heave it into the valley below so that I can return to that place of solace and security.

It makes perfect sense that Björk recorded and released Post just before turning 30, an age when energy, fearlessness and confidence all seem to intersect. Even in some of the most devastating music of Björk’s more recent years, defined by heartbreak and loss, there’s an undeniable sense of hope. On Post, it’s limitless; there are only 11 songs but seemingly infinite paths, an implicit suggestion that she could go anywhere and do anything, and still be definitively, unmistakably Björk.

Yet it’s not ego that guides her, at least not in any obvious way. There’s an almost spiritual sensibility in her journey of discovery, as echoed in the curious wisdom of “The Modern Things.” “All the modern things like cars and such, have always existed,” she sings, “They’ve just been waiting in a mountain.” In other words, matter can neither be created nor destroyed—even when chucked off of the highest peaks—it can only change form. Much as Post showcased the full realization of Björk’s individual vision and creation, 27 years later, with 2022’s Fossora, she echoed a similar sentiment of interconnectedness, of motherhood and daughterhood, being both a product of and eventually returned to the earth. She acknowledges being part of a boundless expanse; the raw materials have always been there, she simply had to determine what new shape they would take.

In the nearly three decades since Post‘s release, elements of its influence have rippled through music by Robyn and The Knife, Jenny Hval and Perfume Genius, Madonna and Radiohead. The innovators that followed her and which she helped to foster in some way already existed in her own music. Whether viewed as part of a long and continuously innovative career or even a smaller piece of a limitless continuum, Post remains one of its brightest points.

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