In the words of the Ninth Doctor, lots of planets have a north. That comes as some relief to me, my origins being predominantly upwards-of-Humber. It’s nice to know that out there in faraway galaxies, there are others who like their vowels flat and their tea stewed. But I think what he was really driving at was that the North is a state of mind, not a place with boundaries and coordinates. The North is inside you as well as around you; you can evoke it, invoke it, summon it.
W.H. Auden, perhaps the greatest British-born poet of the Twentieth Century, knew the thrill of this imagined territory. His ‘great good place’ was ‘the part of the Pennines bounded on the South by Swaledale, on the North by the Roman wall, and on the West by the Eden Valley’; Crewe Junction marked ‘the wildly exciting frontier where the alien South ends, and the North, my world begins’. Though there’s always a degree of hyperbole in this kind of statement, I know and feel his love; my heart always leaps a little when I reach Sheffield from the south, knowing I’ve crossed into a land of faster rivers and fruitier accents. Auden had a map of Alston Moor on the wall of his Fire Island shack through the 1950s, a visual aid to his reimagining of ‘how basalt, long oppressed, broke out / In wild revolt at Cauldron Snout’. I too have my lovesick reminders: a desktop image of Yorkshire hay-meadows greets me every time I fire up the office PC. But my northern designs don’t stop at greystone and grouse moorlands. One of my favourite cities is Stockholm, a place in which crystalline Nordic light almost hurts the eyes. And last year, I made it to the southern tip of the Arctic Circle, when friends of mine married in Finnish Lapland. Aurora borealis, reindeer, snowglobe landscapes – it was a joy for the Narnia-inclined.
Auden got even further, to Iceland. You may have read his collaboration with Louis Macneice, Letters from Iceland, which expresses the poets’ fascination with a land of geomorphic drama and literary sagas. In the poem ‘Journey to Iceland’, Auden writes: ‘Europe is absent / This is an island and therefore / Unreal’. As a citizen of the world, a resolute pacifist with a complex ambivalence about questions of national identity, he valued the spaces outside of political circumscription. And yes, we like to think of islands as undefiled by border fences, even as ‘unreal’ – they are the Atlantises and Avalons of myth. But islands are also indisputably themselves, delimited as they are by the sea. Island nations aren’t like the places around them; they don’t shade into their neighbours. They often make a point of their separateness, their difference. Their unreality becomes oh so much more real.
I wonder if Auden would have seen Björk in this light. They would certainly have got on, for she is a mythical creature in herself, straight off the pages of Icelandic lore, like one of the shapeshifters in the family of Egill. She is a poet too, contorting the English language into new formations, gearing its molten words into odd shapes. She’s a prophet, a seer, a visionary; mid-song, she abandons language altogether for ululations and utterances that cannot be notated, a voice possessed by the spirit of pure, exuberant sound. And yes, she is also an island. Foreign ships wash up onto her shore, bearing gifts from faraway cultures – throat singers, dance boffins, string arrangers and beatboxers – and she welcomes them in while remaining utterly and completely unassimilated. The best type of island: once you arrive, you never want to set sail again. Björk’s Iceland is broad and wide and cinematic; it’s also tiny, introspective and self-contained.
The first albums I heard were of course Debut and Post, whose breathtaking versatility defied any attempt to pigeonhole their creator. Björk is an art form in herself, so mutterings about electronica or dub or jazz are pretty much moot. Take ‘Human Behaviour’, her first solo single. It’s anthropology from the other side of the camera: a mighty animal (Björk) playing at being David Attenborough, observing the little people in the undergrowth. From that very moment, heralded by safari drums and a highly unstable key signature (is it minor or major?), you agree with her that there’s ‘definitely, definitely no logic’; you have to leave it at the door, or rather, on the shore. Logic is there to be misused by bumptious colonialists. Björk will not be subjected to it. Debut revels in these reversals – ‘Venus as a boy’ plays so deliciously with gendered archetypes – and Post takes it even further, its knockout opener ‘Army of me’ clambering all over the speakers like a bloodthirsty grizzly. It was so easy for music journos to turn Björk into a mad pixie, or else a harpy – there is next to no language for female genius in the rawk press – but she was really like some character from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, mutating from goddess to mortal, nymph to tree, woman to donkey. And what was effecting the change? Pure music; the power of waves and frequencies. ‘Headphones’ is one of the most perfect album closers you’ll ever find. Some time before an airbag saved Thom Yorke’s life, a bit of hi-fi headgear saved Björk’s. Listening to her sharing this intimacy with us, the awakening of ‘cells that haven’t been touched before’, it’s almost as if we can hear the clicking of her ears. This is the most impressive reversal of all. Where music is usually an outward expression of an inner feeling, here the musician is taking us, unafraid, into her very body.
On 1997’s Homogenic, this aesthetic of inner as outer and vice versa begins to achieve itself. The mythical metamorphoses turn tectonic: ‘Joga’ beckons us to explore ‘emotional landscapes’ and ‘states of emergency’, the points at which plates shift under the earth or unavoidable reactions happen within the body. Where Debut and Post mash up British, American and African influences, Homogenic is defiantly Icelandic. Björk isn’t morphing into animals anymore; she is geology itself, becoming boulders and rivers and geysers. The character in the sinuous ‘Hunter’ could be Arnakuagsak, the Inuit goddess responsible for the catch, but she could just as easily be a feature of the territory. When she finally followed up this highpoint in 2001 with perhaps her career best, Vespertine, she was both compellingly present and spellbindingly elsewhere. Vespertine is one of the most personal, most erotic albums ever made, alive with minute sensual epiphanies, moments when light falls upon skin in hitherto unseen ways. It’s also awash with the grandeur of subarctic geography. It’s tiny. And it’s huge. And ‘Hidden Place’ is its physical and spiritual core.
What and where is this place? It could be the mouth of the earth, pushed upwards into volcanic eruption. It starts off in uncertainty, microbeats suggesting the little fizzes and pings of rocks forming, keyboards evoking the magma’s swirl. This is a hidden place unmasking itself, a revelation as inexorable as breathing. But this is also unearthly music. The first time I heard the choir unravelling the beautiful minor sixth chord that signals the chorus, it felt as if the stars were singing. It’s a song to watch the night sky by, a song unencumbered by light pollution. Its darkness is richly, deeply dark; its light is coruscating. Nevertheless, the song is neither about Iceland nor about the great cosmos beyond. As Björk has clarified in interviews, it’s a love letter to love. The hidden place is that space we reach as a couple that no outsider can access. Judging by the even more explicit track that follows it, ‘Cocoon’, which depicts the sleepy waves of post-coital satisfaction, ‘Hidden Place’ also speaks of somewhere decidedly female, something its video hints at while cannily remaining abstract. It really is almost enough to turn me straight: Björk, you had me at ‘through’.
This being art, though, the sex is also conceptual, even philosophical. Apparent contradictions (ahem) come together here. Björk is childlike, fairytale-invoking; yet she’s also joyously womanly. The hidden keeps revealing itself, in ever more Sibelius-ish choruses, for there are always deeper layers beyond immediate reach. And, as she notes of her man, ‘he’s the beautifullest, fragilest, still strong’. It’s here that the song veers away from the purely physical and into a reverie on the imagination itself. Fragility is power here. The song is at once jewelled with filigree and chiselled of igneous stone; it’s like a human hair, seemingly small yet possessed of extraordinary tensile strength. ‘Sanctuary’, as Björk feels it, is a mousehole; but that mousehole is gateway to a galaxy.
As you can see, I’ve lapsed into unforgivable mixed metaphors here, but that’s always a danger with Björk. There aren’t really any rules or standards. Protocol and taste don’t even come into it. You often sense that not even the English and Icelandic languages are capacious enough for what she wants to express. All these words and phrases – Vespertine, Homogenic, ‘the warmthest cord of care’ – are Joycean in their impatience with the limits of the dictionary. Often language is foregone entirely – Björk’s trademark yells and ejaculations – or else it is chopped up and served in unexpected forms (check out ‘Where is the line?’, the most astonishing track on 2004’s superb Medulla, in which the title is virtually the entire lyric, de- and re-emphasized in a cappella incantation). But most often, language is embodied just as music is. It lives on the tongue, in the genitals, in the spine (see her collaboration with Evelyn Glennie for this lumbar language in all its glory). The hidden place is beyond language, but it’s also what reveals itself when we listen deeply to language, when we take a stethoscope to its chest. Björk’s vocals always sound so…well, vocal. You can hear her lungs inflating and her lips smacking; you can hear her larynx vibrating and her mouth pouting and smiling. Perhaps, then, the song is about reconnecting us to the hidden parts of ourselves, as much as leading us to those of the singer. We are about to know our own bodies as never before.
Lots of planets have a north. You have one too. Point the compass. Part the pines. Watch your breath as you catch it.