I remember where I was when I first heard “Pagan Poetry.” I was sitting on a futon in my crappy sunroom-cum-bedroom with my boyfriend, and we were listening to Vespertine for the first time, and we were both confused and uncertain about what we felt about it. The summer sun was setting through the sunroom’s windows as we listened, and the arctic chill of the tinkling melodies didn’t mesh with our mood at all.
“Pagan Poetry” caused some initial humour, too. I asked my boyfriend if he thought the opening music box melody sounded like one of those oh-no-the-killer-is-around-the-corner! soundtrack motifs, and he laughingly agreed. I still think it does, actually, and I have to will my brain to move past that when I re-listen to it.
Aside from that, “Pagan Poetry” has everything that makes Vespertine slightly irksome to me: child-like singing, dense, over-thought out melodies, fizzing rhythms and too many chiming sounds. But the song has since become one of my favourite Bjork songs – it is, as a commenter suggested, definitely one of her sleeper songs for me – entirely because of the spectacular video.
The video starts out okay enough. It mixes ideas of sex, femininity and aesthetic self-mutilation, and it generally works quite powerfully, even if we are spending most of the time trying to figure stuff out (Is that a penis? No, wait, that’s a penis!) rather than visually appreciating it. There is that quick shot of Bjork in what looks like sexual ecstasy (it’s probably actually pain). It looks very authentic, and for that reason, it always shocks me a little. Britney has never worn an outfit she couldn’t bust out of, and she loves the O-face, but she’s never shown anything approaching the sexual authenticity of Bjork’s single expression in this video.
Anyhoo, the video happily trundles along, cheerfully deconstructing our views of hetrosexual intercourse, and then there’s some Miro-like abstractions halfway through, but the real excitement comes, for me, when the camera focuses almost entirely on Bjork for the second half of the song.
The first thing you notice is that Bjork is topless. Bjork has fine boobs, but they are, surprisingly enough, not particularly shocking in this video. I don’t think I’m being a stupid gay man here – I doubt this video is circulating on Limewire under the title “POP SLUT CUM TOPLESS HOT XXX.” It’s an odd thing to wonder how this effect was achieved – it’s probably the high fashion feel of the video – but I think it also has to do with Bjork’s nature as a performer.
Now us Bjork-fans have to admit it: Bjork is not a particularly beautiful woman. She’s “beautiful” in the way that we all are, I guess. For instance, we are all “beautiful” when we are photographed for a Benetton ad or a Dove commercial. In other words, she’s averagely pretty, and she can be cleaned up well for the benefit of a video or an album cover, but she’ll never make any Maxim top 10.
At the same time, averagely pretty people can, through an explosively dynamic personality, turn their appearance into something much more fascinating than a cameo by Jessica Alba or Jake Gyllenhaal. I’ve watched and re-watched Bjork sing these last verses hundreds of times, and I am continually re-excited by it. She’s kind of acting like a big drama queen – crying one moment, ecstatic the next – but what saves it is the way you can see her exploring her way from one emotion to the next, and the emotional sequence is both counterintuitive and yet immediately understandable. There’s nothing wrong with being dramatic as long as you make it seem organic, as long as it feels that you aren’t doing it to manipulate, but instead, are following some logic you are discovering from moment to moment.
And this, I think, is the key to Bjork’s ability to pop out boobies and not faze anyone. Bjork’s sexuality is in her face, and her expressiveness, and it’s something that anyone can potentially find absorbing. It is the nakedness of her emotions that excites us more than her physical nakedness, and I think it aligns well with what is the enormous peak of this song.
Up until the moment that the majority of the music dies away, the song has been at cross-purposes with the lyrics. The lyrics are about how simplicity in art often aligns itself best with the simplest, deepest part of your being. “On the surface simplicity … But the darkest pit in me” – it doesn’t fit well with the overly fussy melody. But when the music dies away, and we hear Bjork only repeating, “I love him”, we suddenly understand what she has been meaning. (Of course, the contrast wouldn’t have been there without the initial fussy music.)
And then there’s the next line: “And he makes me want to hurt myself again.” (edit: This is getting folks into a twist. See the comments for discussion.) Sung with a sneer or self-pity, this would have been an awful line. However, when Bjork sings it with her trademark confidence, its a terrifying lyric – it tends to make me shiver. She’s not espousing some anti-feminist ideal (although the whole video has been basically a dramatization of some Andrea Dworkin-level themes), but a yearning to lose yourself in someone so much that it can only hurt.
And finally, and most importantly, it crystallizes the song’s themes of the lover as an artist, and the artist as a lover. Good art can give you that horrible feeling – that awful shiver – that its beauty is so powerful it hurts. True beauty is horrendously un-useful, and if you’ve ever truly contemplated it, you know that it can be painful to think about, because in the end, beauty doesn’t give a fuck about you. The beauty of true love is like this as well – you are astounded by it, but completely unable to comprehensively react to it, to provide a response that matches the original beautiful thing.
And this is why this video was so effective at changing my opinion of the song. Watching Bjork is mesmerizing because not only is she expressing this idea of being destroyed in the presence of beauty, she’s doing it in a beautiful way. She is, quite nakedly, and with a minimum of necessary ornament, expressing very clearly what art should be: it should be a terrifyingly beautiful response to the terror of love. And since love is a simple and powerful emotion, your response should be a simple and powerful thing. It should, in other words, be a form of Pagan Poetry.
I’ve been finding it difficult to write about Debut. This is partially due to unfamiliarity: I haven’t listened to most of the album tracks in over eight years. I originally received Debut as a taped copy from my friend when I was fifteen (Sorry RIAA! I was a poor teenager), and that copy kept me pleased until I left for university. By that point, however, I was falling so deeply in love with Post that Debut seemed unsophisticated and silly in comparison. So, when I misplaced my taped copy in one of my subsequent numerous moves, I didn’t mourn its loss, and never got around to replacing it.
Re-listening to the album for this blog, therefore, has been an odd experience. I hate how non-Bjork fans deify the album and ignore much better work in her post-Post discography, so I’ve been trying to suppress an urge to be really harsh in my discussions of the songs. I figured I’d start with a song that is relatively unimportant to the whole album and the only non-single I clearly remember.
And I remember “There’s More to Life Than This” mostly for it’s little as-heard-in-a-bathroom-of-a-large-club conceit. It’s the sort of thing that excites kids who are starting to fall in love with pop music. The gimmick makes the song seem fresh and unlike anything they’ve heard before, and teens fuel novelty in pop music because they want music that captures their generational spirit, and is not something borrowed from their parents.
The conceit certainly excited me in this respect, but it and the song itself also did something even bigger. They transported me to the world of London dance parties and drugs that helped produce Debut. My suburb was pretty dance club-free (and I was too square to do drugs), and the idea that you could get so tired of partying you would feel the need for something more substantial was wonderfully exotic, mindbogglingly decadent and, of course, hopelessly attractive for a housebound teenager like me. At fifteen, I wanted to dance all night in a London club and complain about having too much fun. Heck, I wanted to have any minor improvement over the never-ending boredom and humiliation of Brampton, Ontario. The song was a small voice saying: it doesn’t always have to be this way. Eventually, it’ll get better. And for that reason, I liked it.
Now, however, the album version feels overwhelmed by the gimmick. Like the rest of Debut, it is glossy and professional and it is undeniably charming. But I also don’t care. I may have been initially attracted to the song’s decadent conception of London nightlife, but since I have had my taste of the song’s sentiment – and London’s nightlife – I can see how slick and toothless the song’s portrayal is. Listening to it, you don’t imagine that Bjork feels overwhelmed by partying. Instead, she still sounds way too excited by it. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but Bjork’s song is too vital and innocent, and sounds much too much like my own lame teenage attempts at mimicking world-weariness for it to have substantial emotional depth. Which, I suppose, is why I connected so well to it at the time.
Imagine, for a moment, that Bjork’s career no longer existed. Her earthy voice, her quirky outfits, her bare feet, her strident bizarreness: all gone. We no longer have anything to complain or argue about (if you were complaining or arguing, that is).
Are you there? Have you imagined it? Okay, now, imagine this:
In early 2007, a song called “Pneumonia” begins to circulate through the Internet. It is essentially an a cappella track with some horns for emotional colouring, but the vocals of the unknown vocalist are stunning. Unlike any other singer of her age, she sings with a professionalism that does not dull her emotional complexity. She sings brightly and with a mixture of fragility and authority that many indie rockers can only secretly envy. She seems generally unclassifiable. For instance, although she’s clearly romantic, she doesn’t fall for any standard romantic tropes: she doesn’t sound self-pitying or mopey or overly impressed with herself. The song itself doesn’t seem to belong to any genre. It could be in the tradition of a lieder, or a lullaby, or a pop song, or it could just be a vocal jazz riff.
It’s a curious little fragment. No one would suggest that it is perfect, or that it is the greatest song of the year, but the song seems to indicate a talent that needs attention. Everyone is delighted and confused by the little song. It sets the critical world buzzing: Who is this person?
It’s perhaps sad, then, that this world doesn’t exist. In our world, “Pneumonia” is only the smallest track on an embarrassingly over-critiqued album – an album that is apparently being punished for not being Debut Part Deux (or Post Part Deux). It’s not a particularly good song – in fact, I would go so far as to say, in the context of Bjork’s discography, it’s probably one of her poorest album tracks – but the song is still worth a few listens.
Listen, for instance, to how it is a melodic play on “Aeroplane” from Debut; listen to how she quotes “Storm” from Drawing Restraint 9 when she sings the last note of “simply surrender to high”; listen to the lyrics, and their refutation of “Human Behaviour” (“You’re just crying after all/To not want them humans around anymore/Get over the sorrow, girl”); listen to the song and imagine it being performed live, and how the tension could match her performances of “Desired Constellation.”
See, it’s all about context.
Although the majority of Telegram has not aged well (why, exactly, did we all like drum ‘n bass?), I think the Telegram version of “Possibly Maybe” holds up next to the original. It’s no surprise: the remix was done by Bjork’s regular collaborator, Mark Bell.
Listen here: “Possibly Maybe (Lucy Mix)”
The original plays the song for its cinematic girlishness. As I listen, I can almost imagine it playing in the background of a scene from a snappy fifties comedy – Bjork is swooning while she talks on the phone to her swell new Manhattan boyfriend. The Telegram version, on the other hand, emphasizes the song’s sultriness. This time, as the song plays, I picture Bjork dressed in a cocktail dress, singing in a smoky cabaret.
When I replay the song in my head, it’s the Telegram version that plays, but that’s because that version also has some personal importance for me. It is the version I was listening to when I had my first kiss – with a boy. I don’t mean that it was playing when I kissed him. Instead, it was all I played about the time I had my first kiss, and I loved the line “I suck my tongue in memory of you” because that’s what I did, to remember the delight of his kiss. The hermetic, lazy sexiness of the Telegram version fit my mood so perfectly. All I wanted to do was lie around and semi-chastely fantasize about him.
(Total non sequiter. Said boy has since become middlingly famous in indie circles. I won’t give everything away, but he is in a band that likes to sing about hunks who breakdance. Speaking of which – we don’t really talk, and I don’t even think he remembers me (sob!), but the last time we spoke (several years after we dated), our entire conversation was him telling me, “Excuse me, could you get out of the way? I need to breakdance.”)
In either version, the song is exactly what many people miss most about post-Homogenic Bjork: it’s sweet, easy, pop-y, and just the tiniest bit forgettable. “Possibly Maybe” is a good song, but it’s not a great song: I don’t know anyone who likes Bjork who dislikes “Possibly Maybe”, but I also don’t think anyone really loves it, and it’s not a song that makes a very strong impression.
Apart from that, the only other thing I wanted to mention was my other favourite lyric. I love the line, “Who knows what’s going to happen?/Lottery or car crash/Or you join a cult.” It’s absurd, but it fits in well with the song’s feeling of slightly unhinged and self-delighted expectation. It also makes me yearn for the days when Bjork liked fun, absurd lyrics and didn’t feel the need to discuss suicide bombers.
Sadly, the video is one of Bjork’s lesser videos. There are no inventive conceits and stunning visuals. It’s just Bjork gussied up in various different outfits. In other words, I could totally see a Top Model photo shoot where the girls have to dress up like Bjork in “Possibly Maybe”. (The bitchy one – there’s always a bitchy one – would complain that she had to be “ugly striped-sweater Bjork.”) I would say the video is worth it for the shot of frizzy-haired Bjork and Bjork licking a watermelon, but the black light was ugly and unfashionable in the nineties and it’s still ugly and unfashionable. This video usually gets a skip on my Bjork Volumen DVD.
It’s the shortest track on Medulla (by a second!), and also the only one that is completely a cappella in the traditional sense. Medulla has several bridge songs – songs under a minute that seem more like interludes than finished songs – and “Show Me Forgiveness” fits this pattern.
At the same time, it is one of the most capable (but odd) rejoinders to the charge that Bjork had abandoned pop by the time Medulla came out. The melody she sings is simple, pure and without dissonant notes or irregular rhythms. The melody is also probably one of the most memorable on the album. If the song were longer, and it had a verse-chorus structure, it could easily have been a standard pop song.
It is the lyrics that help push it even further as a stand out track. Lyrically, “Show Me Forgiveness” highlights Bjork’s strange yet liberating stance on self-perception. Since she’s a post-Christian and (up until Volta) a fairly unconscious feminist, she has no interest in asking God or her lover for forgiveness. In the song, she needs forgiveness for having “lost faith” – an irony, I’m sure – in herself.
With these lyrics sung into what sounds like a void, the song becomes a metaphor for the difficulty we all have with reconciling our “interior” with “outside forces.” To be able to forgive yourself, you need to believe in your own worthiness. For a post-Christian, this belief cannot be bestowed by God: it must originate out of nothingness. Confidence in one’s self is as fragile as a voice alone in a void. But that voice, out of necessity, can produce something strong and beautiful.
I was having difficulty deciding what the first track review would be for this blog (or more accurately, what would be the highlighted song when I officially launched the site). I wanted it to be “Human Behaviour” because it was my first introduction to Bjork, and that felt like an appropriate beginning. But once I started writing, I couldn’t stop – the song suddenly became the encapsulation of everything I wanted to say about Bjork. And that is what this blog is supposed to do, not that one particular song. So, I began casting around for a new beginning.
I eventually settled on “Alarm Call.” It’s an odd choice, but I think, once I explain what the song means to me, it will become clear.
(I’m including the video, but the original mix of the song is what I will refer to.)
I bought Homogenic – without having listened to it – in my first week of my second year of University. I quickly fell in love with the big tracks – “Bachelorette”, “Hunter” and, a little later, “Joga.” But although it has since become one of my favourites, “Alarm Call” meant nothing to me for a long time. It didn’t have the sweeping strings and vibrant melodies of the other songs. Worst of all, it initially felt like a tepid replay of “Hyperballad”: mountains, things on top of mountains, Bjork on the top of mountains, Bjork possibly throwing things off the top of mountains, WHATEV.
And then the winter came, and I became depressed.
It’s all very cliched. My school work was difficult and excessively time-consuming and I was gradually discovering I hated my major (Chemistry: whodathunkit!). I was still living in residence, but I was surrounded by strangers. Most of my friends had moved out, and those that hadn’t were too busy to hang out with me. Two of my closest friends were drifting away, for various reasons. And perhaps most importantly, I was slowly and very pathetically inching out of the closet.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that it was all cliched, it didn’t stop the cliches from hurting any less. The cliche was happening to me, after all. I had spent my teenage years yearning to get out of suburbia and to become an adult, and now my life was unfolding very differently and much more painfully than I expected. I was confused and isolated and fairly hopeless. I had made a mess of my life, I thought, and I was letting everyone down.
And then, one day, in the early spring, I replayed “Alarm Call.”
One of the things I most appreciate about Bjork is that she wants her listeners to be happy. Not just happy as a consumer – Bjork wants you to be transcendently, ecstatically happy and fearless. Bjork wants to change your life.
And that’s what “Alarm Call” is – it’s instructions on how to listen to Bjork’s music. You take it up to the top of a mountain and you play it as loud as you can, and you have a fucking good time, because we’re not philosopher-saints, we’re regular, normal people and the only thing that matters is allowing yourself to be happy and making sure that everyone else is happy too. That is enlightenment.
The music is pleasant enough, but the song is mainly, and most importantly, that beat that sounds like a giant dancing from foot to foot and Bjork’s singing and lyrics, which are some of her most unashamedly joyous (listen to her growl!). They are ridiculous and they sound like they were written by someone who can’t speak English very well, but they are so important and so so so true:
Today has never happened
And it doesn’t frighten me
It doesn’t scare me at all
You can’t say no to hope
You can’t say no to happiness
It doesn’t scare me at all
The song meant so much to me that spring: my problems were all cliches – and the answers were all cliches. That’s why I had initially ignored the song. I hadn’t had the right experiences to illuminate the meanings of the words.
As you get older, you realize that the reason why truisms kick around so long is because they are, in some ways, true. “You can’t so no to hope/You can’t say no to happiness” – it only sounds ludicrously optimistic and out of touch with the world when you haven’t been through some serious crap. When you have, it actually sounds like the only way to live, as one of the only bearable truths in life. “Today has never happened/and it doesn’t frighten me” – that sort of thought can only come from someone who was once frightened of what today would bring, and who no longer feels that fear. If you have been through that, you know the rush that comes when you realize you no longer feel that fear, when you no longer feel like you have to punish yourself.
That spring, I came out of my depression (in more ways than one), and learned the exhilarating joy of not fearing the next day. I have Bjork, and “Alarm Call” to thank (at least partially) for that.
An appropriate beginning, I think.
“Generous Palmstroke” is played in the final section of Inside Bjork, a DVD documentary that I unabashedly love. Sure, the celebrity interviews are thoroughly – I mean, thoroughly – unenlightening (Sean Penn?!?!). But Bjork is one of the few artists who is very capable of explaining her own reasoning in a manner that is both straightforward and not reductive. I watch the film when I’m feeling down because Bjork’s robust creative spirit (no matter what you think of her creations, she approaches the act of creativity in the exact right spirit) energizes me and gets me in a fighting and creative mood.
So, at the end of the film, Bjork is discussing how she still thinks she’s doing “pop” music (some people will find this an odd statement, I’m sure), and why she likes pop. Pop, she says, very quickly brings you to an emotional place that is very easily understood by everyone. She also says that her idea of pop is a modern continuation of folk music. I love this formulation, because it is so obviously against the grain of what most folk musicians think about their music. (Or, it should be against the grain of what they think about their music – how do these folk musicians deal with the obvious fact that their music is mainly for white, affluent intellectuals?)
At this point in the documentary, “Generous Palmstroke” is played as an example of Bjork’s “modern folk.”
It’s very Troubadour sounding: the clip-clopping beat, the harp plucking, Bjork’s simple (even for Bjork) lyrics and her quasi-iambic rhythm on the vocals. It’s like she’s saying to folk musicians: you think you’re folk – I’ll give you ancient folk. But Bjork uses this simplicity to hang hundreds of emotions on her performance: her vocals repeatedly circle from excitement to resignation to cheerfulness and then to despair. It all builds to a crescendo where even the simple formalities of the song are thrown out and the primal folk of the verses seems to be too cossetted and stilted to contain the song’s raw emotion. What can be more folk, more understandable, more ecstatic, than a person, accompanied only by an explosion of sound, singing at the top of her lungs, “Embrace me/Embrace me/Embrace me”?