Sep 11

The Sugarcubes: “Birthday”


Just an innocent little line drawing. Yep, nothing to see here, kids…please move right along…

It’s my younger son’s 9th birthday today, and although I won’t be able to do this every year for both of my sons, as there’s a limited number of relevant songs out there, I thought I might as well do a birthday song today. I just did a Beatles song yesterday, so although it was the first to come to mind, I won’t be doing their “Birthday” — maybe I’ll save that for my older son’s birthday in November and then be done with it. I mean, I could try to find birthday songs for all my family’s birthdays, each and every time they come around, but that would get a bit tedious after a while, I’d think. Not to mention that the quality of songs would head downhill pretty quickly.

So on to today’s song, which is “Birthday,” by the Sugarcubes. Aside from the title, it’s not a particularly birthday-ish song, actually — it’s about a 5-yr-old girl and her innocent friendship with the man who lives next door — but it certainly is a great song. Along with “Motorcrash,” it’s one of the two songs that brought the Sugarcubes — and, as a result, Iceland’s most famous musical export, Bjork — to international attention. Released on the Sugarcubes’ 1988 (wow, has it really been that long?) debut album, Life’s Too Good, you couldn’t help but sit up and take note of the incredibly unique voice of Bjork. It’s a thing of beauty, really: she can take it from high to low in the space of a breath, swooping and swirling, angelic one moment, growling the next. While supposed vocal talents like Mariah Carey were showing off their multi-octave range, Bjork just did it all like it was second nature — I imagine that her response to her sudden fame was something like, “What, am I doing something unusual?” It was just how she was choosing to express herself, from deep inside and with soul, and in doing so was so much more impressive to me than those technical singers. Not to mention that I love how she sings the word “freckles”:
“. . . knows how many frackles she’s got. . . .”

But that shouldn’t make any less impressive what’s going on with the rest of the song. Behind Bjork’s voice, the instrumentation is just right for what she’s doing, filling in yet leaving the perfect space for her. The off-kilter horns (whether they’re synthesized or otherwise) add an ideal accent to the teetering rhythm, and the chimes lighten the whole affair to make it even more ethereal than Bjork can do with her voice alone. All in all, it’s a wonder of a song, perfectly out-of-whack as much as it’s perfectly balanced.

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