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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Hyperballad" stands the test of time... and honestly, we've yet to reach its time

A quarter-century after its release, Björk's ethereal dream sequence song still sounds like it's ahead of our current era.

In examining the trends of my Senior Year Soundtrack inclusions up to this point, one stands out above the rest: the comparative lack of 90s music.

I'll be the first to admit that the 1990s is by far the weakest decade in terms of my pop music knowledge. I know a lot of 60s through 80s music because of my parents, and I know the 2000s to the present because I've lived through it... but there's a decade in between those time frames that I hardly know. It's not that my family didn't live through the 1990s — in fact, that was when my parents met, got married, and had my older brother — it's more that contemporary popular music didn't soundtrack their lives by then.

I've passively heard lots of 90s music, but, owing to what I described above, I haven't ever really sought out that era in my listening. Thankfully, this blog encourages me to expand my musical horizons and see what I've missed... and I've missed a lot. Today's entry focuses on a song I passively knew and liked, but didn't truly appreciate until it was discussed last month in a reading for one of my classes, at which point I finally gave it the track the attention it deserves and became utterly enamored with it. It's rare for a song to so quickly take me over, but then again Björk's "Hyperballad" is far from typical popular fare. A hypnotic mix of acid house and folktronica, punctuated by Björk's unmistakable voice and fantastical narrative, "Hyperballad" is a track which still sounds cutting-edge and futuristic even today, a rare accomplishment for a 90s production.

The first word that comes to mind when I hear "Hyperballad" is 'serene.' There’s something comforting about the song from the start — maybe it’s the strings at the very beginning; maybe it's the calm, electric piano-like synthesizer that plays throughout the verse; or maybe it’s Björk's enrapturing, free-flowing vocals. Her voice is perhaps the most distinctive of our time, and it’s also piercingly clear; it’s never in doubt as to what she’s singing. Björk also stays firmly in the song’s key while singing, and this rigid diatonic approach helps mitigate some of the strangeness which may be perceived about her vocal style. At the same time that the track is calm and placid, "Hyperballad" is also quite frenetic, with lots of moving parts. The snare drums and synthesizers playing every subdivision of the beat throughout the verse make the piece always feel like it’s moving, but doing so without a clear sense of direction. This feeling is accented by the uneven feeling of the verse’s chord progression, which is three measures instead of the typical four. Breaking out of the norms of Western popular music can leave the listener uneasy, but it also opens up a new realm of musical possibilities.

Björk's lyrics reflect the aforementioned duality between serenity and franticness. The vision for "Hyperballad" came in a dream, in which she woke up before her partner and went outside to throw objects off the cliff above which they live, listening to them on their way down. Björk's delivery of this dream sequence remains calm and measured through her vocals, even as she talks about imagining "what my body would sound like / Slamming against those rocks." This morbid fantasy took me out of my easier listening to the song when I first heard it. The connecting of her habit with suicidal ideation suggests that there are even darker thoughts that lie underneath the surface of the song and her mind. Ultimately, the chorus soon reveals that this habit of hers is a coping mechanism, enabling her to get out her feelings early in the day so she can "feel happier / To be safe again with" her lover. In this individualistic expression, Björk breaks free from her coupled life for a moment and feels alive on her own. The question remains in my mind, from a therapeutic standpoint, how effective her practice truly is if she has to go through it daily, and how it may actually be damaging if she ensures nobody else knows about how she feels. For me, these thoughts — clearly punctuated by some of my own experiences — linger over the track, even as I sing and dance along to its pulsating, acid house-laden chorus.

Between its synthesizers and drums which still sound modern today, its willingness to break out of metrical norms with three-bar phrases, and Björk's magical vocals, "Hyperballad" is a track which sounds like it's from the future despite being released more than 25 years ago. Add that to a lyrical basis that straddles the line between a dream and a therapeutic coping mechanism, and you get a song that is modern in essentially all aspects. Leave it to Björk to anticipate the trends of the future, both musical and social, better than any other artist of her time.


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