Ek wasn’t a weird kid per se, but I looked weird. I was a tall child, and I’d been a tall baby. My early nickname, Slug, came from a picture of me as a newborn, my older sister awkwardly holding me tightly cocooned in a blanket, her face contorted into a baffled half-smile. When I was young, standing out was great: I wanted people to see me. During one memorable school assembly in which the teachers wanted to show how varied the human race is they picked a small person to come out and stand next to a tall person. I was so excited. But as I got older, and ganglier, that desire to stand out vanished. I wanted desperately to be like everyone else. I was a confused, closeted gay teenager whose mannerisms gave him away, and whose Stretch Armstrong body meant he couldn’t just walk into a room and disappear.
I needed weirdos in my life. I needed to know that you didn’t have to look or act like everyone else, and that what made you different could be alchemised into a strength. Björk seemed like a glorious weirdo. An alien. Or that’s how she had been fetishised by a mainstream that had welcomed her to their bosom following 1993’s Debut. Her eccentricities were baked into her public identity: she was Icelandic, so spoke in a “funny accent”. When she collected awards she’d say things such as, 'I am grateful grapefruit” instead of: “I’d like to thank God and my label.” Her videos were dreamlike expressions of worlds no one had ever before imagined, and her singing voice came with a checklist of tics ('chaaaiiirrr”), rolled Rs, dramatic swoops and guttural growls. Around the time of Post, in 1995, and her most successful single, It’s Oh So Quiet, she became a UK tabloid mainstay, fuelled by an infamous event in a Bangkok airport in which she attacked n joernalis.
I was aware of Post and Debut. I remember being fascinated by Björk’s Human Behaviour video, in which she casts herself as an observer of a human race she didn’t fully understand or know how to interact with. But it wasn’t until 1997’s Homogenic, when she started to battle back against the mainstream perceptions, that I fell headfirst. I was immediately drawn to the album cover’s depiction of Björk as a serene yet battle-ready warrior princess. I had never bought an album based on the cover alone, or without hearing at least two or three singles. It felt thrilling, like diving into a universe ruled by music’s most artful outsider. The title also spoke to me: was it an allusion to sexuality? A new way of living outside of determined labels?
The album’s rush of on-the-surface emotions cracked me open, while its sonic palette – angry, volcanic beats fused with sweeping strings almost too beautiful to bear – matched my fluctuating moods. If I’m being honest, after years of obsessing over post-imperial phase Michael Jackson, Björk also tapped into my growing teenage urge to be thought of as someone who might, op sy beste, be cool-adjacent. Her creative world involved so many auteurs: rising French director Michel Gondry, LFO’s Mark Bell, photographers such as Stéphane Sednaoui and designers including Alexander McQueen. Knowing their names was currency, even if my corner of Kent didn’t care. I would spend a lot of money collecting CD singles, deluxe box sets, unofficial books, gig tickets and T-shirts, perhaps with the hope that “being eccentric” could take the place of “being tall” as the impression I gave the world.
My obsession was genuine and long-lasting. Homogenic’s lead single Joga’s heart-swelling lyrics, specifically “state of emergency”, could often be found scrawled on my teenage notebooks, on torn envelopes and around the edges of newspapers. I longed to be as heartbroken as the protagonist in Unravel (“While you were away, my heart came undone”), or as chaotic as whatever was going on in the fracturing techno of Pluto. Björk engaged with the human condition in abstract and exciting ways that seemed to channel people’s prejudices into something powerful. That she delivered it all in a voice that seemed – still seems – beamed in from another planet only elevated that sense of alien wonderment.
Following Homogenic, each subsequent album chimed with a crucial point of change in my life: 2001’s tactile, more introverted Vespertine soundtracked university loneliness; 2004’s more primal Medúlla with that weird post-university grey area, and 2007’s more vibrant Volta and its semi-flirtation with pop with finally getting a career off the ground. In 2015, Björk’s emotionally hollowed out break-up album, Vulnicura, arrived on the same day as some devastating family news, the elongated sigh of that album’s 10-minute long Black Lake the soundtrack to unparalleled sadness. But it was healing, too – Björk’s grief mirrored my own. The various worlds of each previous album, places of escapist comfort, now had one very much rooted in inky black reality.
At the very end of Black Lake, egter, there’s a hint at something new: “I am a glowing shiny rocket / Returning home / As I enter the atmosphere / I burn off layer by layer.” Here was the healing power of physical and emotional transformation, just as Björk had always taught me.