Big Time Musicality

Tory Foulk

Björk Guðmundsdóttir is an enigma. She was such at the beginning of her career and so she remains, as is proven by her newest album “Vulnicura,” which was released last Tuesday. Some might say that after 30 years creating music (and donning unforgettable, swan-centric ensembles), her existence has almost become more myth than reality. Many articles mention her New York penthouse, her attempts to find good schools for her daughter Ísadóra and her confession of illegally downloading music in an interview with Pitchfork. Still, it’s difficult to imagine her doing anything but standing at the mouth of one of Iceland’s many volcanoes, controlling the easterly winds with nothing but the spectral power of her voice.

Her work is simultaneously alluring and intimidating. From her self-titled debut album to her most recent release, her music is consistently vast but intimate, painfully human and otherworldly all at once. Her creations are full to the brim with what seem to be contradictory elements, both conceptually and musically, but her mastery of musical craft renders her capable of folding dissonance into harmonic consonance in a manner that’s entirely …  Björk.

The first time I remember hearing a song by Björk was when the music video for “Human Behavior” appeared on an episode of MTV’s “Beavis and Butthead.” Granted, it wasn’t the most cultured or age-appropriate way for me to discover music, but I was enthralled nonetheless.

My favorite musicians at that time were all teen pop sensations like Britney Spears, so Björk’s visceral, unearthly vocal style was foreign to me. Up until that point, I had no idea music like that even existed. Something about it appealed to my childhood desire for wildness and magic. I didn’t even pay attention to the lyrics at the time because I was so caught up in the sound of it all. Her accent, the drums and the controlled chaos of her voice called to something inside of me in a way that no bubblegum pop hit ever could. Don’t get me wrong, I still listened to a lot of silly pop music after that, but just knowing that musicians like Björk were out there provided me with a strange comfort. It was a sonic reminder that there was something deeper and delightfully apocryphal at the edges of the human experience, waiting for me to notice its curious beauty whenever I chose to look.

Björk became more of a constant in my life when I received my first mp3 player. I filled it with as many of her songs as I possibly could, and the allure of that mystical in-between place enveloped me even further the more of her discography I absorbed. Though her music differed in some ways as she grew and changed, the atmosphere it created remained the same.

The more I discuss Björk with others, the more I realize this is a common reaction to her music. Its appeal lies in its ability to create an extraordinary space that is just alien enough to draw listeners in and just intrinsically human enough to keep them there, celestial enough to feel like an escape, but grounded enough to allow for a feeling of connection. In this way, Björk is a singular pop culture figure. While her work is sometimes compared to that of other experimental artists like Bat for Lashes and Röyksopp, it is, at its marrow, incomparable. She does not simply create music; her energy and influence transcends media of all kinds to create a universe.

On her upper arm, Björk has a tattoo of the Icelandic magical stave known as Vegvísir. The first record of this symbol is in the Huld Manuscript, a handbook of Icelandic sigils and charms written and collected by Geir Vigfússyni in the mid-1800s. Underneath the illustration of Vegvísir, it says, “if this sign is carried, one will never lose one’s way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known.” This is precisely what Björk always seems to accomplish for us, her entranced audience. She transports us expertly through the unfamiliar and complex. She creates a journey, guides us down its labyrinthine paths and then leaves us on the other side, uncertain we fully understand what has happened. However, it is always a worthwhile experience, and that is why each time she invites us back into her realm, we can’t help but follow.