Girl in a Sweater: Björk’s Debut at 30

30 years ago, the Icelandic singer/songwriter unveiled her international introduction. In 2023, it's lauded as an experimental pop masterpiece.

Music Features Björk
Girl in a Sweater: Björk’s Debut at 30

At the end of the 1980s, a curious art-rock band emerged from Iceland. They called themselves The Sugarcubes. NME offered: “…The Sugarcubes resided in a border town south of Obscure and just north of Wacky.” For a group from their remote island nation especially, The Sugarcubes strutted a delicate line between popular and enigmatic, and their college radio hit “Birthday” remains a favorite on throwback alternative playlists on major streaming services, like Spotify’s “Early Alternative” curation. But NME also recognized something key: What brought listeners back was a voice that belonged to Björk Guðmundsdóttir, a veteran of Iceland’s nascent DIY scene who’d become an accidental child star at the tender age of 12 on her first recorded foray, Björk. But her true debut as the colorful, kooky, intellectual sonic pioneer we know today emerged in 1993, aptly named , and it sounded nothing like The Sugarcubes.

Having come of age during Iceland’s first punk wave, Björk was right at home as a bandleader and collaborator in DIY bands. She tried her hand at various punk styles in projects like KUKL and Spit & Snot throughout the 1980s, to varying degrees of local success. The Sugarcubes introduced the world to Björk’s outstanding singing voice, which could dart between glorious and mortifying in just a few notes. She was ecstatic to be in a band: ever since her childhood stardom at 12, she resented solo stardom. However, she had a cache of songs she’d written and a fascination with music The Sugarcubes would never touch. After three albums, none doing quite the numbers as their first, The Sugarcubes called it quits, and Björk departed for London, deeply curious about the electronic and punk communities that were forming, reforming and collaborating at all times.

It’s in this peculiar ecosystem where Björk synthesized her old and new musical adventures under her own name, aided by co-producer Nellee Hooper. In a music landscape blown open by personalities like Kate Bush, Brian Eno, Everything but the Girl and more, pop music had an alluring limitlessness in the early 1990s. Björk’s own affinity for London club beats is immediately apparent on Debut, and it carries through the rest of her career. This is what has kept Debut so prominent for fans: It is, at once, a thesis statement on the Björk project, a treatise on the expansive potential of experimental pop and a nakedly personal project: “You get the impression that these are songs she’s carried in her mind, like secrets, for years,” wrote Johnny Dee in an effusive review for NME. “Like Someone in Love” sounds especially dear, with Björk sounding like an impassioned stage actress frolicking while she sings over a harp.

Do you remember where you were when you first heard “Venus as a Boy”? Accompanied by orchestra and tablas, the track is global Björk, an early example of dozens of transnational musical experiments she would work through for decades beyond. Just as she celebrates the beautiful potential of contemporary electronica, Björk’s sound is global, seeking and incorporating musical approaches both traditional and avant garde that are marginal in the world of anglophone rock and pop. Rolling Stone’s Tom Graves, an early disapprover of Debut, particularly disliked “Venus as a Boy” at the time of his review, arguing that the instrumentals clash against Björk’s voice.

But 30 years later, after Debut failed to chart, the unconventional arrangements—plus Björk’s fluid vocal performance, guided not by masculinist stricture but by the boundlessness of beauty—have kept it a fan favorite. When I first encountered the song in high school, I was just scrolling Tumblr—something I did too much of—and pressed play on the Sophie Muller-directed video. The video is pretty understated for Björk: She cooks eggs and recounts the wonder of a man who believed in the primacy of beauty. But what a strong visual introduction “Venus as a Boy” makes for her full pivot to solo work: her dotted eyebrows, hair rolled into tight buns, all framing the true star,her expressive face. Björk is not just a gifted singer and songwriter, she’s a master of performance—and, whether it be on stage or on film, she appears immediately comfortable sharing her quirked-up self.

Björk’s admiration for trip-hop and acid house are immediately apparent throughout Debut, and, with her ever-growing platform, she brought these stylings into new landscapes and fandoms. Devotees of Björk from her rock days and new heads looking for an alternative pop idol found the peculiar, catchy approaches unforgettable. “Crying” possesses an unshakeable bounciness; “Big Time Sensuality” is even funkier. House music had come a long way from its queer, post-disco origins in Chicago warehouses; producers pushed the four-on-the-floor foundation to expansive new territories. Just as Björk was ready to embrace house, it was ready to embrace her; the two of them could push up against each other and synthesize a new, forward-thinking dance-funk experience with mutual admiration.

Tracks like “One Day” capitalize on the ambient potential of dance, with Björk even withholding some of her kinetic energy on an ethereal track that endures even at its spiritual climax. The throbbing bass and spacey synths give the song, and the whole album, an otherworldliness. Björk is not just international, she’s interstellar. While her approach here feels distinctly 1990s, Björk would tilt her gaze towards a gentler, more-interior approach much more regularly—especially on Vespertine and Biophilia. With The Sugarcubes, the world got to know an explosive Björk. In her solo work, the world gets to see Björk revel in all of her moods and color.

On Debut, Björk and Hooper gently toss these art-raver subgenres against the wall to see what could stick. Eventually, they all did: Trip-hop gathers more steam on Post, ambient on Vespertine and worldbeat on Volta. Like on “Venus as a Boy,” Björk travels the world for new collaborators and sounds like gabber on Fossora or back to her native Iceland on Homogenic. Like on “Human Behaviour,” she is fascinated with the intersection of nature and society across her discography, especially on Biophilia. So, while Debut is, in some senses, “painfully eclectic” and understated in its execution, it is the ideal sampler for what has been a 30-year, world-changing experimental career.

Björk’s influence is hard to quantify. We can look at the icons she’s invited for collaboration—ANOHNI, serpentwithfeet and Arca, to name a few—or her early adoption of technology like smartphone apps and virtual reality. Or, we can certainly look at her unforgettable imagery for every album campaign and, of course, the now-revered Pejoski swan dress she wore to the Oscars in 2001. In truth, Björk’s curiosity is what has made her the icon she is today. Against her instincts to stay in her beloved Iceland, she ventured to London to immerse herself in the sounds she craved—following all of her curiosities and nurturing the experimentalist that germinated within her.

The unassuming album with a girl in a sweater on the cover, Debut paved the way for today’s alt-pop canon. Everyone from Caroline Polachek to FKA twigs to SOPHIE have records that pull influence from her. Björk needed to make Debut to satisfy her compositional itch. Between Donna Summer, Kate Bush and Björk, the pop and dance intersection was destined to never look the same and remain timeless, bursting open the creative possibilities as you dive deeper into sensational, obscure impulses. Alt-pop is, today, a whole universe; there are myriad artists working in the genre’s aesthetics who crave approval from esoteric queer people and music critics before they crave approval from the charts. When Debut dropped, the world listened, sometimes skeptically—but, 30 years later, it’s an undeniable masterpiece.

Read our 2022 ranking of every Björk album here.

Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.

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