Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Music According to Benedict: "Hyperballad" by Björk

I have to be honest with you.

When I first read Benedict's Top Tunes on Two Paddocks, I didn't notice anything particularly unusual - UNTIL he wrote about #8: "Hyperballad" by Björk.

Americans might remember her for her awards show fashion sense more than her singing:

Björk. (Click on her name to check out her whimsical website.)

I might have just scanned the paragraph Cumberbatch wrote about the song - and moved on, except his words gave me pause:

"But what about Mitchell, Joplin, Ella, Tina, Oh god I need another list. It's all very white and male....! Damn. Beautiful song, though. And a nod to a lot of dance music that hasn't made it to this top ten."

Know what? I think he's right. He does need another list for phenomenal female artists who've made more than music - who have created art for the ears and the imagination. We'll talk about Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald AND Tina Turner in future, but first, let's talk about the Icelandic indie singer-songwriter who may not always get our understanding, but who almost always gets our attention

Björk Guðmundsdóttir first came to the attention of UK audiences as the lead singer for The Sugarcubes, an Icelandic alternative rock band, whose path to pop recognition began when they wrote & released "Birthday" in 1988. It's safe to say the seeds of individuality had been sown.

"Birthday" lyrics include:

"Grapples with the earth with her fingers and her mouth, she's five years old.
Thread worms on a string, keeps spiders in her pocket,"

"Today's a birthday, they're smoking cigars, he got a chain of flowers, 
Sows a bird in her knickers, they're smoking cigars, lie in the bathtub, chain of flowers."

Björk described the song as a "tasteless pop song" about a five-year-old girl who has a love affair with the man next door, who is celebrating his fiftieth birthday.

So, there's that.

(Interesting note that another Cumberbatch choice, Sigur Rós, originally signed with the same record company - Bad Taste - the label supported for - and by - the Sugarcubes.

This is just a glimpse of Björk as an artist in the '80s, although she'd been singing professionally since she was 11.

"Hyperballad," released in 1996, is a swirling, fanciful electronic immersion of rhythms, sounds and vocals.  To me, nothing about Björk is simple or straightforward, except a desire to express her complexity in point of view and presentation. A planned cognitive dissonance seems key: her vocals arc in such a breathy, childlike plea as the tempo and instrumentation ebb and flow, while her lyrics take you to places very adult, very complicated - and with questions left unanswered. She tells you a story, but unless you allow yourself to get lost in the music, move with it - and let it take you off and back again, you're going to be a bit...unsettled. Her lyrics don't let you go. They grab hold and provoke a reaction.

What picture do the lyrics paint this time?

"it's real early morning
no-one is awake
i'm back at my cliff
still throwing things off
i listen to the sounds they make
on their way down
i follow with my eyes 'til they crash
imagine what my body would sound like
slamming against those rocks." 

See what I mean? The single was a critic's darling, and also received some measure of success in the UK, US, Finland and Australia. My hunch is that the dance remixes helped. Still, no matter the time signature or tempo, songs about love, relationships and how you view yourself when you share a love and life with another, can make a tremendous impact - if they're done well.

We may not agree with Bjork's methods or her message, but I think we agree that she stays true to her vision - a vision that translated into international recognition and success, and her presence remains strong, even on the music of other artists:

Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art announced they will honor Bjork's unique perspective and projects in the performing arts with a retrospective covering two decades of her work. The opening is set for early March, and visitors can view the retrospective through June.

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