Album: Life’s Too Good
. . .
35 years down the pike, it’s hard to express just how weird The Sugarcubes sounded when we first heard them in 1988. Back then, they sounded like aliens who had been what popular music sounded like without actually playing those aliens any popular music as a reference.
And given that they were from Iceland, that might have been the case, but my real guess was that being from Iceland meant that they really didn’t give a fuck about the rules, and so their debut, Life’s Too Good featured fractured fairy tales of songs like the utterly stunning “Birthday,” which announced to the world that lead singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir was a sui generis talent.
“Birthday” opened with a quietly jumping bassline from Bragi, followed by seemingly disjointed drums from Siggi, which combined with Thor’s guitar stabs and Einar Örn’s occasional trumpet blats, created a unique sonic space for Björk to emote over. And boy does she ever!
She lives in this house over there
Has her world outside it
Scrabbles in the earth with her fingers and her mouth
She’s five years old
Threads worms on a string
Keeps spiders in her pocket
Collects fly wings in a jar
Scrubs horse flies
And pinches them on a line
This all leads to one of the great wordless choruses of any record ever, an utter tour de force from Björk, which goes approximately like this:
Which doesn’t remotely do justice to all of the ear-splitting highs and guttural roars she packs into it. That chorus, man, is both catchy as hell and disorienting as fuck, and the band provides a shitton of space to just let her do her thing, which continues in the second verse.
She has one friend, he lives next door
They’re listening to the weather
He knows how many freckles she’s got
She scratches his beard
She’s painting huge books
And glues them together
They saw a big raven
It glided down the sky
She touched it
Björk’s scream on “she touched it” is nearly as great as the chorus, making it seem like touching that raven is the most important thing that anybody has done ever.
In the end, after announcing it’s the protagonist’s birthday, Björk closes the song by chanting “down-down-down-dah-down-down-dah-down” a couple of times as “Birthday” draws to a close.
As you can imagine, this was all too weird for true mainstream success, but it was a massive hit among the weirdos who ran college and indie rock stations, as well as the critics, with the biggest accolades in the U.K., where it was #2 on the Indie Chart and was in the top ten of most of the year-end critics polls. Here in the U.S., it was #15 on the Pazz & Jop Critics poll, and over the years has come to be known as an 1980s classic.
Also of note is a remix by the Reid brothers from The Jesus and Mary Chain, which was reissued as “Birthday (The Christmas Mixes)” for reasons, I guess, though I kinda loved those two.
“Birthday” Official Music Video
“Birthday” Live on MTV, 1988
“Birthday” Live in 1989
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