VOICES: 3/ love stories
Björk: "Hyperballad" (One Little Indian, 1995)
There is nothing so old as the day before yesterday's thing.
And there is nothing so refreshing as the over-familiar heard anew, as if for the first time. It does happen.
It happened for me last week when the combination of a dream and a muttered reminiscence meant that I listened for the first time in more than twenty years to Björk's second adult solo album, Post. She had been the subject of both dream and mutter. The dream was seemly, the reminiscence no less than sweet, and the upshot was half a morning's immersion in the strange magma of the music that, for me, most enlivened the 1990s.
She's 54 now, the old girl, and solidly installed in the art landscape of our time as a sort of living sculpture you can listen to – or disregard, if you prefer, as a bit of arty nonsense. Sometimes she becomes news, too, but not often these days. I just like the records. All of them. Some more than others, obviously, but all of them to one degree or another. No one could reasonably claim that Post is Björk's most reaching or coherent album but, like all her mighty works, it freezes the listener for the duration within a blizzard of little thrills that requires endurance and takes some explaining.
But then anecdote is always engendered by Björk's music, as if the drama of her creative process is partly what you're listening to – and if not that then the drama of your own activities as you live in and around it. The music itself seems to live most brightly in the stories it generates. It is music as anecdote, a notion that was frontloaded into me at the time: my lived experience of Björk's music became, for me, what the music means.
Her first grown-up album, Debut, came out in the year I started seeing the woman who became my wife, 1993. Jane and I listened to it a lot together, partly because Debut is great and it demanded to be listened to a lot, but also because it stood exactly at the intersection of our rather divergent senses of taste. Everything we did manage to share then seemed to have a special heft.
Then Jane (at that time a junior music PR) was engaged to work on the launch of a short film conceived to intensify the headway Debut was already making in the world, to which end she was required to introduce Björk to the stage of the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill in front of a crowd of period hipsters, journos and record company apparatchiks. Rather her than me. But this she did with dignity and aplomb and it was then that I knew, as I stood chewing my knuckles at the back of the auditorium, that I was falling in love.
"Violently Happy" was played a lot.
Post came out in the year we got married (I, for one, had never intended to get married) and, as we approached that looming event with a mixture of excitement and suspicion, "Hyperballad" became the focal point of the landscape we jointly inhabited, with its strange geology of tinkling celestes and seismic upheaval. Jane talked about it sometimes as if she, too, were throwing car parts, bottles and cutlery off the edge of a cliff so that she might feel happier to live with me. I in turn listened, stupefied, to the tinkling, the starkly repetitious intervals of the melody and the gradual gathering of jittery, zizzing pulses as if they were new bindings in life. I think we both used the song to describe something we were quite unable to articulate ourselves in ordinary language, even to one another: the breakage and disposal of old ways of feeling and being – material we both needed to discharge like magma through our thin outer crusts.
Later, in my career as a newspaper journalist, I did get to interview Björk, in 2001, prior to the release of her "indoors" album, Vespertine, which followed the overtly "outdoors" one about her home island, Homogenic. I had a tiny lunch with her in Little Venice. I did not mention the unusually personal nature of my relationship with her deeds, nor the way her records were as bound to me as my beloved wife is. How could I? This was the period in which Björk wore a swan and fought off stalkers and questions about her celebrity with snarls.
She did not snarl in Little Venice though. She was charming and gravely playful and made me feel as if I were somehow collaborating with her in a tiny lunch project. She curtsied when she was introduced – she really did: a sort of bob, which I reciprocated with what I hoped was a gentlemanly formal inclination of my head – and we talked bollocks in low voices for an hour in what I still think of as the most enjoyable interview I ever did. She rubbed her nose up and down with the flat of her palm a lot and her voluminous medieval sleeves dragged in the spillages on the table.
And even though we have now been married for twenty-five years, Jane and I still execute knowing squeezes of the hand whenever we run across Björk stuff in everyday life, and we still make the same joke about it being high time we had Björk round for supper, since we both know her so well.
We last saw her half a dozen years ago in Cambridge Circus, on the edge of Soho, where she was standing and sniffing the air in an angular Japanese dress and massive wedges, her hair tumbling in thick tails between her shoulder blades like a rush of otters. She was probably waiting for a car, but she looked like a sculpture.
I nudged Jane and said, "Shall we? After all, she is a close personal friend and we do owe her supper." But she said, "Nah, next time. Looks like she's busy." We both knew, too, that we couldn't afford to not be remembered.
Nick Coleman is the author of three books: The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize; the novel Pillow Man; and Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life. All are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage.