Summer of Björk Context Is Key For Iceland's Pop Queen

Summer of Björk Context Is Key For Iceland's Pop Queen
Descriptions have been a struggle since she first emerged as the enigmatic singer for the Sugarcubes: enigmatic, childlike, elfin, pixie-ish, eccentric, weird, otherworldly. They come not from disrespect but from mystification, attempts by bemused journalists to capture the spirit of one of the most creative one-person whirlwinds to emerge in our times. She is Iceland's most famous export. She is a singer of epic power, a writer of seemingly limitless imagination, an acclaimed film performer who never wants to act again, a loner, a people person, and a lover of Iceland's treeless landscape who is addicted to the concrete and glass of the world's biggest cities. Understanding is not essential to enjoyment; she is simply Björk.

Although there is no new record on the horizon — at least not soon — this is the summer of Björk for fans who seek a sense of perspective on this avant-garde artist. In addition to a series of new and reissued DVDs and a four-CD live box set (see sidebar), ECW Press just released Björk: Wow and Flutter, a biography by Toronto writer Mark Pytlik.

From the outset, Pytlik fesses up to being a Björk fan and as such, to some hesitation at taking on the project. To his credit, he lets that enthusiasm for her music guide Wow and Flutter; it's less a typical biography, in terms of exploring her personal relationships, and more an analysis of how the major events of her life have shaped her creative expression and her art. This is a biography for music fans, no doubt, not for prurient gossipers seeking the inside scoop on her romantic relationships with rivals Tricky and Goldie. Those elements are there, to be sure — along with her most famously tabloid moment, when Björk randomly slugged a journalist in Bangkok — but Pytlik is careful to always steer his work into the teeth of who she is: the music she makes.

Amongst the myth-making elements of Björk's career, her youth in Iceland is the most convoluted, but Pytlik delves right in, providing a remarkable context for her early musical sensibilities and the post-punk scene from which she emerged. It provides not only a foundation for who she's become, but also the elements that shaped her work with the Sugarcubes in particular. It's an examination not only of early lessons in the music industry, but of what she wanted to leave behind when she embarked upon her solo career.

Whether it's her musical backing or her visual presentation, Björk has always been imbued with a restless spirit. As excited by the emerging London dance underground as she is by avant-garde experimenters or roots-oriented music from distant lands, Björk's open ears have led her in dozens of different directions.

In other words, context is everything, and that's what this summer's slew of releases provides. Most of the concert DVDs currently being reissued are concert films that made a VHS appearance in recent years, but looking back on four distinctly different albums and their accompanying tours all at once brings her evolution into sharp relief. The four-CD live box set follows a similar pattern — each disc focuses on material from one of her four albums.

A couple of Canadian shows this summer — including Toronto's first-ever concert on Olympic Island, recently postponed to September 3 — should provide a glimpse into Björk's next move. Until it arrives (and as Pytlik's book illustrates, recording regularly stretches well past deadlines), we have a remarkable body of work to submerge ourselves in.

Björk's Works: A Summation of Summer Releases

Greatest Hits DVD
As this 21-track video compilation reveals, Björk's eccentric sensibilities stretch well beyond the aural. Innovative short films by underground directors like Spike Jonze ("It's Oh So Quiet," "It's In Our Hands") and Michel Gondry (six vids, from "Human Behavior" to "Bachelorette") showcase an artist whose visual explorations are as wide-ranging as her musical ones. Also released: Volumen Plus, an EP/DVD of just current videos to accompany previous compilation Volumen.

Vessel DVD
This reissue doesn't add anything to the concert's VHS release — unless you count the spectacularly crisp picture and sound that DVD offers. This chronicle of her Debut tour intersperses choppily cut arty footage with one of her best bands ever — a diverse cast of international players including a pre-Asian Underground hoopla Talvin Singh. A spirited performance bursting with the potential of creation.

Vespertine Live At the Royal Opera House DVD
This tour for her most introspective album doesn't make for totally compelling viewing, but the music remains stunning: backing includes avant-harpist Zeena Parkins, an Inuit choir, and electronic experimenters Matmos. Vespertine remains a tour best experienced in person, but watching the Matmos duo shuffle amplified rocks with their feet as rhythmic accompaniment is a treat.

Minuscule DVD (release date TBA)
Behind the scenes of Vespertine, this doc explores touring that album in opera houses and soft-seat theatres around the world.

Inside Björk DVD
This hour-long documentary explores her unorthodox career from the Sugarcubes days to her current work, including interviews with fans like Elton John, Thom Yorke, Missy Elliot, Sean Penn and the RZA.

Live Box Set (out August 12)
Björk shows are a mystical, ever-evolving experience that use her recorded work as a jumping off point for improvisation and exploration. Her lack of consistent backing band means that each of these four CDs — one for each album/tour — is unique. The material is gathered from a variety of sources, from MTV Unplugged to random TV appearances, but the level of performance is stunning. Also included is a bonus DVD, a sampling of performances from other concert DVDs. Unless you're a serious concert film geek, the arrival of Live Box Set is the Björk news of the season.

Gling Glo (out August 26)
Not the album she made as a pre-teen, nor (contrary to popular rumour) an album made with her father, this early CD features Björk fronting Icelandic jazzers the Gudmundar Ingólfssonar Trio. Mostly consisting of jazz standards and Icelandic traditionals, this reissue fills the remaining hole in her discography.

Later with Jools Holland DVD (out September 23)
This DVD issue contains Björk's appearance on this popular UK chat show.