Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Birthday" by the Sugarcubes (1987)

I am about to make a confession that throws into disrepute whatever credibility I might have had as a reviewer of music: alone on the entire planet, I was worried when I heard that the Sugarcubes had broken up that Björk might not be able to hack it as a solo artist. Ludicrous, I realise, that while the rest of the world (who had heard of them back then) called out, 'thank God she's gotten rid of those albatrosses', I worried that... I don't know, without Einar Örn's famously annoying Fred Schneider-like interjections, Björk might be lost. Shrug. I was the only person in my high school of that opinion, if I can test your credibility by actually claiming that enough people in an Ontario high school knew of the Sugarcubes to hold discussions about them.

Let me further test your credibility by telling you how I first heard the Sugarcubes: in signing up for a Columbia House subscription, where they offered 8 albums for a penny or something, on a whim I wrote down the name of a band I'd never heard a note of before, with the album that had a silly multi-coloured cover with crudely drawn genitalia. I knew only that the band was Icelandic. I guess that was enough to catch my attention.

When the albums came in the mail, I can remember my reaction to this completely unknown quantity. It seems relatively tame now, but to me at the time, this album made Iceland seem like a very, very foreign - and beautiful - place (Sigur Rós would do the very same for other people in later years, I imagine, as would volcano pictures these days...).

The album is far from perfect. It startes to get a bit repetitive towards the end, and of course Einar Örn grates like fingernails on a million chalkboards. It's not a classic album. But this...

This is gorgeous, fantastic, shimmering, enchanting... I can't imagine anyone not falling head over heels in love with Björk after hearing this, which for my money remains all these years later her best recorded performance. Of course, it's the English version I was familiar with, being on that Columbia House album, though the Icelandic version probably has the advantage of better singing on Björk's part. But then you miss out on the lyrics... well, no big deal. It's nonsense about a five year old girl and her fifty-year-old friend. A lot of gibberish sounding like the poetry of a person who speaks little English. It all goes to hell in the amazing chorus, which is entirely wordless anyway. It consists of Björk grunting out a melody with an intensity that (a) belies her stature and (b) has little to do with a five-year-old who smoke cigars and keeps spiders in her pocket. What it is is a short-circuit to a very specific emotional place, one furthered by the slightly woozy instrumental background (and the trumpet that obscures Einar Örn's mouth, preventing him from speak-singing). It's an emotional place that manages to be very dark and light at the same time - innocence with underpinnings of sinister intent. Perhaps the conflation of a five-year-old's feelings (played well by Björk, who has a permanent lifeline to childhood anyway) with the feelings of the kind of fifty-year-old who befriends five years old.

I have no idea. I lot of this song is a mystery, including the way it comes to a rapid ending with a few dum-dum-dums and then an immediate dissolution. It's beautiful and enchanting, yes, but it's also a tough act to follow and seems to require about half a minute of silence following it for... quiet reflection, I guess.

Reflection of how misguided your preconceptions of music have been, perhaps. To have presumed that music could not exist on this emotional level, and certainly not with vocals that are alternately wordless and meaningless (or in a foreign language, depending on which version you go for).

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