Though it was not her intention when Bjork recorded Post, I can’t think of another album that captured the ethos of the 90’s so completely.
Most people remember the 90’s more for the second half, the period that spawned the technological and communications revolution commonly known as the dot.com boom. I lived in San Francisco during that time, and witnessed the classic tech cycle of destruction and creation operating at hyper speed. While I admit I was excited by the possibilities of the Internet and thrilled when we bought a turquoise blue iMac for the family that I hogged most of the time, eventually I wound up feeling as much disgust as delight. What had been a bohemian paradise known for its liberal sexual, social and political attitudes was soon overrun by clueless newbies who flooded the city to enjoy the riches of a “new economy” that self-proclaimed experts claimed would defy the ancient rules of the dull science and continue to grow forever. Dining in a San Francisco restaurant in the late 90’s was the aural equivalent of a metal concert, for the tables were jammed with loud, abrasive, obnoxious, fast-talking jerks with no sense of class. Those newbies talked loud and long, believing that they were the vanguard of a world revolution driven by the unlimited potential of new technology that would make the impossible possible, connect people all across the planet, give us unlimited access to information 24/7 and totally transform our archaic, limited pre-revolution lives. Their arrogance was astonishing, and it should have come as no surprise that the bubble would burst just like all the old fart nay-sayers said it would.
My sense is that future generations will look back at that period as a point in history when people decided to re-create the world without giving a second thought to the consequences of re-creation. It was a decade of starts and few finishes, of grand ideas that would float like balloons in the clear blue sky only to pop and fizzle in the end. Stripped down to its essentials, the communications and technological revolution was not driven by the desire to improve human communication, but to satisfy the modern human craving for instant gratification. The thrill of speed has always been seductive, and technology created a perpetual hunger for more and more speed. We have become speed addicts of a different sort, and we have no one to blame but ourselves. We want our packages and pizzas delivered NOW, ignoring the knock-on effects of such unreasonable demands on the human beings charged with filling those needs. We also failed to realize that technological progress is always a double-edged sword: by demanding more and more speed for our convenience, employers would naturally demand more and more speed from their workers for their convenience, turning nearly everyone connected with the modern economy into 24/7 slaves to technology.
With its heavy use of electronic instrumentation and programmed beats, Post is almost the perfect soundtrack to a technological revolution. Bjork’s expressed passion for speed and excitement captured the frenetic energy of the time. The ambivalence she displays in songs concerning relationships played out in more flexible arrangements and looser affiliations that became more common at the end of the century. Her hyperactive imagination sought to destroy boundaries to self-expression, making her almost a role model for the techies who wanted nothing more than to obliterate anything that was hopelessly dated. And, like many things from the 90’s that seemed so cool at the time, Post proves to be more ethereal than substantial, another balloon that popped and fizzled.
In perfect sync with 90’s values, Post opens with a message that would have been embraced by any business executive of the era. Bjork wrote “Army of Me” as a message to her brother to grow up, get his shit together and develop a sense of personal responsibility. In the process, she connected with the millions of people in the world who are sick of whiny moaners who prey on the latent sense of guilt in the human psyche. The explosive opening mirrors the personal explosion when you’ve finally had enough of that poor-me shit, with the bass-heavy, relentless industrial beat communicating firm resolve. The part of the message I find most fascinating is the second verse:
You’re all right
There’s nothing wrong
And get to work
And if you complain once more
You’ll meet an army of me
“And get to work” is the line that most fascinates me. During the 90’s one of the dominant management fads had to do with something they called “accountability.” Leadership gurus everywhere considered accountability the magic bullet that would solve workplace productivity problems forever. After attending more leadership seminars than I care to admit, I figured out that the whole accountability fetish was a really just a way for lousy managers to blame their own failings on everyone else and make them feel better about firing people. Unwittingly, Bjork validated the emerging status quo of the modern workplace, where failures are blamed on lower-level individuals while the bosses take credit for success. “Army of Me” is a powerful and appropriate message on a personal level, not so much when you’re talking about life within the hierarchy. Despite that quibble, “Army of Me” is a captivating opening track, and Bjork’s ability to alternate between quiet, simmering anger and barely-controlled explosions is admirable.
“Hyperballad” changes the mood from aggressive to introverted, as Bjork describes her morning ritual as one where she throws various objects off a mountaintop before her honey wakes up. She tells us, “It’s become a habit, a way to start the day,” something that allows her “to be safe up here with you.” Later she describes a more gruesome fantasy as she watches the objects cascade down the slope:
I follow with my eyes ’til they crash
Imagine what my body would sound like
Slamming against those rocks
When it lands
Will my eyes
Be closed or open?
This tale will seem very weird to you if you choose to interpret it through your conscious mind. For me, the key to understanding “Hyperballad” is the time of day—the waking hours, when we exist somewhere on the edge between the conscious and the unconscious. We experience this state when falling asleep or waking up, and often we find ourselves presented with strange images as visual manifestations of fears and fantasies emerging from the unconscious mind. The other night while I was falling asleep, images of driving on the steep winding roads of the Côte d’Azur popped up, and much to my horror I missed a curve and started plummeting to a Princess Grace-like demise. I jumped up, shook my head vigorously and immediately snuggled up to my lover “to feel safe.” “Hyperballad” is not a meaningless mind-dump, but the description of a common experience we rarely share except with our most intimate contacts. Bjork set out to break boundaries on Post, and “Hyperballad” is her most successful effort in that regard, and her most human contribution on the album.
“The Modern Things” seems even more remote due to Bjork’s use of Icelandic in most of the verses. While the English verses are a pretty clear message that we should never fear new inventions because they are all derived from a shared human consciousness (a pro-technology message if there ever was one), the rest of the song is gibberish to most of the planet. Various translations I’ve read indicate that Bjork is singing about an erotic experience (“There’s a sun when he breathes into me, he bites me, he bites me”), so perhaps she simply felt more natural describing sex in her native language. My multilingual partner and I have experienced the same tendency: the words that always come out during orgasm are those from our native languages (English for me, Spanish for her). Shit, I don’t have the brainpower to translate an orgasm when I’m in the middle of one! Despite the linguistic challenges, Bjork’s voice is intensely captivating on this song, and the soft Euro-electronic background provides a nice simmering groove for her behind-the-beat vocal.
“It’s Oh So Quiet” is the only cover on the album, but turned out to be Bjork’s biggest hit. Go fucking figure. Originally written German, it was first translated into French, then transformed into English for a Betty Hutton b-side back in 1951. Betty’s English-language original has a more brassy, Ethel Merman feel, but except for the stylistic difference, Bjork’s version is a virtual copy, right down to the screams in between the words. Essentially it’s a third-rate novelty song, a Broadway show tune that never made it to Broadway. The success of the song was driven by the success of the music video, clearly demonstrating how video can seduce the viewer into believing a song is more than it is.
We return to the industrial style that opened the proceedings in the song “Enjoy,” probably my favorite track on the album. Bjork was describing her first extended experience in the big city (London) and found the throbbing energy of the metropolis irresistible. Her use of the subjunctive in the verses, very rare in English, implies a combination of doubt and desire:
I wish I want to stay here
I wish this be enough
I wish I only love you
I wish simplicity
She shifts to the present tense when engaging her senses. Note that she’s not describing Piccadilly Square or any other specific location, but the energy that hums through any big city. The same words could have been used to describe the Internet revolution:
Look at the speed out there
It magnetizes me to it
And I have no fear
I’m only into this to
Her hedonistic response to city life is given fuller expression in the second passage:
How can I ignore
This is sex without touching
I’m going to explore
I’m only into this to
Her vocal delivery is as mesmerizing as her experience, moving from tentative ambiguity to the excitement of finding the right words to express a feeling primed to burst from the deepest part of her soul to the full-throated release and reminder to “enjoy!” My partner and I love to fuck to “Enjoy,” as the combination of industrial intensity and slow build makes for sublime accompaniment to an erotic experience.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album is one comedown after another. Bjork plays marriage counselor in “You’ve Been Flirting Again,” one of those songs that seem to drag on forever. The very, very slow tempo and synth string arrangement hints that the lyrics must be terribly meaningful and deserve your undivided attention. They don’t. The story, if it can be called that, is related in simple, repetitive language as if intended for misbehaving children. I still don’t believe that this piece clocked in at 2:29: it feels longer than “Desolation Row.”
“Isobel” has been lauded by critics as a brilliant integration of scale-defying music, trip-hop and poetic fantasy. After listening carefully to the song and reading her own description of it in an interview with Eurotrash, it feels more like artistic narcissism than genius:
This is the story of Isobel; she was born in a forest by a spark, and as she grew up, she realized that the pebbles on the forest floor were actually skyscrapers. And by the time she was a grown-up woman and the skyscrapers had taken over the forest, she found herself in a city, and she didn’t like all the people there so much, because they were a bit too clever for her.
She decided to send to the world, all these moths that she had trained to go and fly all over the world and go inside windows of people’s houses— the ones that were too clever— and they’d sit on their shoulder and remind them to stop being clever and start to function by their instincts. They do that by saying “Nah-nah-nan-nah-nah!” to them… (Björk waves a finger in front of her face)… and then they’d say “Oh! Sorry! I was being all clever there!”, and start functioning on instinct.
Bjork has also explained that “Isobel” is part of a trilogy describing her personal journey. The problem with the song is that she does nothing to connect her journey to our journey. It’s just Bjork indulging her imagination, insisting that she get the idea in her head in some kind of form so it will stop pestering her. The musical progression is interesting, but the arrangement is terribly overdone, probably to enhance the cinematic effect of the bloody video.
The third lazy-rhythm song in a row comes next in the form of “Possibly Maybe,” where Bjork decides to spend five precious minutes on another personal story, this one of a relationship falling apart. Bjork describes in vivid detail the superficial stimuli that turn her on, then does a u-turn and accuses him of withholding the deeper, more meaningful love she craves. “Possibly Maybe” possibly maybe indicates that Bjork was the problem child of the relationship, but don’t quote me on that because possibly maybe I could be wrong.
The tempo finally picks up a bit with “I Miss You,” but unfortunately the musical content is the least interesting on the album. Incredibly, Post slows down to a crawl in the last two tracks, “Cover Me” and “Headphones,” both of which are slightly disguised versions of the real theme of the record: me-me-ME!
Oddly enough, though I dislike half of the record, I have no argument with the various polls and lists that rank Post as one of the best albums of the 90’s. It probably was, but you have to put such a ranking in perspective. As mirrored in the story of the dot.com boom, 90’s music was a series of starts and stops that rarely came to fruition. Compared to the riches you can find in the 60’s and 70’s, the 90’s proved to be comparatively barren and empty . . . like an episode of Friends. Post isn’t all fluff and no substance, but it ain’t Revolver, Who’s Next, Wheels of Fire, London Calling, Horses or Aqualung.
I have been assured that those are not real worms on the album cover, but root-beer flavored Gummi Worms. Still disgusting, but not grossly, slimily, creepily disgusting.
The sound of Sugar Stems is as far away from wormy and disgusting as you can get, and even though they’re Milwaukee-based, they have nothing in common with Laverne & Shirley except there are two girls and two guys (and no, the guys are not named Lenny and Squiggy). What they are is an engaging power pop band with surprising lyrical depth whose music should be featured regularly in Little Steven’s Coolest Songs in the World if there’s any justice left in America.
Can’t Wait gets off to a drag race start with “Greatest Pretender,” with guitar and drums flying down the road, building energy for Betsy Heibler’s superb vocals. I love vocalists who can really do descending glissandi, like Little Richard does so well on the word “gal” in the second line of the verses in “Tutti Frutti.” Betsy performs this trick like a champ on the last word of the verses and it gives me the chills every time. I also love the way her voice fades directly into the guitar riff at the end of the first chorus. “Greatest Pretender” is a power-packed song with no empty spaces: it just rocks.
However, the tension between the cheery power pop melody and the edgy lyrics is what raises “Greatest Pretender” to another level. The narrator in the song is a chick who strives to fulfill his every need and fantasy, but the little prick is completely unable to keep his pecker in his pants when other female opportunities present themselves. Our heroine is engaged in a two-front war: one with her lothario and the other an inner war with her identity and self-worth:
I am the blood in your veins
And I am churnin’ like a hurricane
One day I’m gonna throw it all away
I am the air that you breathe
And I am your worst enemy
I am whatever you want me to be
‘Cause I’m your greatest pretender, you know (3)
And I’m all your whores.
“Like I Do” opens with a riff kind of like a high-speed version of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” leading to a solid rocker where Betsy combines sass and sweetness as she muses on the classic chick theme, “it won’t get any better than me, asshole.” The little touches of harmony from bass player Stephanie Swinney Conard show once again how small things can often have more power than the grandiose. Not a band in a hurry to slow down, next up is the title track “Can’t Wait,” featuring lower-register harmonies from lead guitarist Drew Fredrichsen and a driving, crashing beat from drummer Jon Heibler.
We finally slow down a teeny bit (not that I was complaining) with “Landline Static,” a mid-tempo life-on-the-road number powered by acoustic strum, a song with a bit more musical complexity but still very accessible. I love the way Betsy splits syllables on this song (lie-ayne, sky-aye, Ju-lye-aye), but even without those great touches, this is her strongest vocal on the album, full of confidence and clarity, with a tinge of country. It’s also a beautiful song with a pleasing melody and strong lyrics. I love the brilliant refrain, “When you’re all alone, a million miles from home, you know you can go back like landline static on the telephone,” a feeling of irresolvable distance I get when I’m on the road and my honey is at home—even with video it’s not the same as having all five senses engaged in the experience of another person.“Landline Static” also demonstrates that Can’t Wait is much more than your garden-variety pop collection.
Reinforcing that perception, “Magic Act” opens with an introductory passage of acoustic guitar blending with organ and either a marimba or a xylophone, creating a delightful moment of fantasy and wonder. The song then shifts to a groove kind best described as Keith’s “98.6” on steroids and amphetamines, with a high-speed whirling melody and tight rhythms. The story of another experience with a wayward lover is engaging and Betsy delivers them with the snappy soulful attitude you hear in Gladys Knight’s best stuff. Drew Fredrichsen then steps up to the mike for a turn as lead vocalist in the raw guitar-and-snare driven melodic rocker “Get to You.” Drew has a warm, engaging, slightly husky voice that was designed for melodic rock.
Betsy comes back with a defiant vocal in “Told You So.” With its tagline, “the world you live in is so fucked up,” one might get the impression that this is a protest song of sorts, and it is—a protest against people who take a doom-and-gloom attitude towards the world and instead of doing anything about it, just “bottle it up, keep your mouth shut.” It’s kind of like Bjork’s “Army of Me,” directed at the passive-aggressive. It’s followed by the toe-tapping, “Make Up Your Mind,” a relationship frustration song with some fine guitar work from Drew Fredrichsen.
“Love You to Pieces” is another mid-tempo song with a slight country feel that describes a love-hate relationship with some of the strongest and most emotionally honest lyrics on the album. The song deals with the classic tension of the opposites that passion can excite (and the confusing desires it often carries with it):
Always liked the taste of birthday cake
Until you took a piece and put in on my plate,
And said, “Baby, what do you think of me now?”
Well, I chewed it up, I spit it out.
I wanna hug and kiss and hold you all night
But sometimes when I do I want to kill you at the same time,
If I could find a way to just hold you tight,
I would wrap my arms around you ‘til I’m choking off your air supply.
Ready or not, I’m coming over,
You can run but you can’t hide and I keep getting closer
No matter how bad it hurts, I love you to pieces.
Never liked the way that my face looked
Until you told me I was beautiful and I got hooked
On loving myself, yeah, much more than you,
Straight to my head, honey, what could I do?
Many women find themselves addicted to male validation, a craving as strong as the addict’s need for a heroin fix. The tendency in the female half of the species to develop greater emotional intelligence is a double-edged sword: yes, it makes us better facilitators but it also leaves us vulnerable with people (male or female) who approach relationships from the perspective of me-me-me. Despite the emotionally complex story line, the song flows naturally and easily, leaving room for the listener to appreciate the subtleties in Betsy’s wonderful vocal.
Equally challenging from a storytelling perspective is the album’s surprisingly cheerful closer, “Six Feet Under,” a song that reminds those who pray for something better in an afterlife, “Don’t hold your breath, you might not get what you want when you’re six feet under.” This is one of Betsy’s more straight-line bubblegum deliveries, supported by sweet spot harmonies, and the disarmingly innocent sound of the song creates another ironic contrast.
The more I listen to Can’t Wait, the more I love it and the more I appreciate its depth and complexity. If you don’t feel like tuning into the fascinating tales described in the lyrics, you’ll still have a marvelous listening experience, as the melodies are delightful and the band is as tight as can be. Sugar Stems is a marvelously talented group with a clear idea of who they are and where they want to go, and with a lead singer like Betsy Heibler, they deserve to go a long, long way.
I could still do without the Gummi Bears, though. Maybe if I soak them in vodka . . .