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Wednesday 3 April 2024

In A Forest

The BBC re- runs of Top of The Pops have got to the end of 1995 recently. I record them and watch them in bunches, fast forwarding through the rubbish and watching the good stuff- in this way I can get through some episodes in just a few minutes, the charts in 1995 being a smorgasbord of rubbish, big selling pop, guitar bands breaking through and some genuine moments of brilliance. In late August 1995 Bjork was back at the Top Of The Pops studios promoting Isobel, the second single from her album Post. Jarvis Cocker was presenting...

Isobel is a strange choice for a single, not a natural radio friendly unit shifter but I think Bjork's confidence in 1995 was such that she did whatever she wanted to and her record company largely went along with her- I think Isobel was an important song for Bjork and she wanted it as a single. The third single would be It's So Quiet which it's fair to say crossed over. Isobel is one of post's highlights, a dramatic and enticing song with sweeping, cinematic strings, very mid- 90s percussion and a trip hop breakbeat, co- written by Nellee Hooper (who co- wrote and produced Debut). There's a sense that Isobel is a film or play condensed into song form, part of something much bigger than a five minute song. Bjork's lyrics were co- written with Icelandic poet Sjon, and a based on a story Bjork wrote about a girl who goes back to live in a forest. The lyrics were sparked a year earlier in 1994 by a moth that Bjork found in her collar one day and which stayed there until the evening. She saw the moth as an omen and went off creating a story and a person around it, writing apparently 900 pages of a diary. On the verge of mania and almost throwing the book away, but wanting the song to be completed for her next album, she contacted Sjon, explained it all to him and they collaborated on the lyric. 

On Eurotrash (!) in 1995 she explained the story of Isobel- 

'She [Isobel] 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... and then they'd say "Oh! Sorry! I was being all clever there!", and start functioning on instinct'

Isobel is isolated, lives by herself In the city she danced on tables and fell in love with the wrong people so she returned to the forest, living in isolation. It seems fairly clear that Isobel is at least partly autobiographical and in the song Bjork switches between third person and first person. It's a superb, dramatic and complex combination of words and music- pitched among the sheer madness of mid- 90s Top of The Pops it almost seems like a completely different artform. 


Bjork has said that Isobel is part of a song cycle, preceded by Human Behaviour (from Debut in  1993) where Isobel is a little girl, living with animals, happier in the natural world than with people. Human Behaviour is one of the best songs on Debut, and that's saying something, a bouncing house beat and typically outstanding vocal. 

Human Behaviour 

Bacholorette was on 1997's Homogenic, part three of the story, more strings and timpani and another co- write with Sjon, and sees Isobel go to the city, finds things not working out and returns to the city. 


In the 00s Bjork added two further songs to the Isobel song cycle- Oceania from Medulla from 2004 and Wanderlust from 2007's Volta. Oceania is sung from the point of view of the ocean, all human life emerging from it and a place with no borders, races or religions. Again Sjon was on board lyrically. This song, the last recorded for Medulla, was commissioned by the International Olympic Committee for the 2004 Athens games opening ceremony. That's some journey Ms. Gudmundsdottir has made, from Icelandic punk to Top Of The Pops to the Athens Olympic games. 


Anonymous said...

I didn't know the story of 'Isobel', the struggle between instinct and intellect. Ironically i think Bjork's music has become more 'intellectual' over the years. Perhaps the moths should whisper in her ears 'nah-nah-nan-nah-nah'.

Anonymous said...

Agree SRC
Swiss Adam

JC said...

Seconded, SRC.