David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 246: The Sugarcubes (Birthday)

April 26, 2023

As I arrive at another birthday, at a time when birthdays just become road signs pointing toward looming death, I can't help but feel non-celebratory. A late April birthday has always meant, at least for the last few decades, cramming the recognition in with end-of-academic-year responsibilities, some fun, some not, and dealing with some life-changing events never predicted. Given that this series started on my birthday in 2020 with the intent to write 365 blogs by my 2021 birthday, an intention for which I am already 730 days overdue, forgive me if I don't wish to acknowledge my birthday with The Beatles: "You say it's your birthday/it's my birthday too/they say it's your birthday/we're gonna have a good time." (Maybe my future will allow me to circle back to such simple pleasures.)

Besides, I already covered the Beatles. I wish I hadn't played so many cards in this series. I need something that reflects birthdays from a more cynical, jaundiced, let's face it, aged point of view, and there ain't many.

I already used The Smiths, so we will have no "Unhappy Birthday."

Early on, I wrote about Morrissey as a solo artist and threw away my chance to crow that "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore."

Disturbingly, I seem to be left to write about The Sugarcubes' "Birthday."

Where does one even begin? Bjork's strange vocalizations? The bizarre, creepy lyrics? The Icelandic other-worldliness? The general aural experimentalism?

All those quirks permeated Life's Too Good, The Sugarcubes' debut album. "Motorcrash" was about a right "proper Motorcrash," replete with a German-sounding male voice, fellow Cube, trumpeter, Einar Örn Benediktsson, talking about a girl's innocence and her prized bicycle. "Delicious Demon," a song that may be about a priest-demon, is punctuated by Bjork's "Heeeee-Haaw." And in two separate songs, The Sugarcubes rhapsodize (in their avant-garde way) about a young girl in a bathtub with an old man. "Deus" perhaps could be saved for another day, for someone more interested in the sacrilege of describing God seducing a girl ("Leda and the Swan," anyone?), but "Birthday" has found its moment, whether I like it or not.

"Birthday" features a 5-year old girl with "one friend/he lives next door," a guy old enough to have a beard she scratches. The dude knows how many freckles she has. They are celebrating her birthday by smoking cigars and sewing a bird into her knickers, the song finishing with the image of them lying "in the bathtub [with] a chain of flowers." The narrative, as such, interrupted by interjections of Bjork's girlish voice yelling out "Ohhhhhhhh," scream to grunt to wail. Is it a cry of pain, of fear, of surprise, of, god-forbid, pleasure? Inquiring minds don't want to know.

Meanwhile, musically the song has a slightly wonky syncopated drum, the underlying airs of a trumpet, and the clinking of almost a toy piano. Nothing here screams "this is a song for the masses!"

And, yet, somehow "Birthday" was the initial single released from Life's Too Good, a choice equally as puzzling as its subject matter. As I suggested at the beginning, though, what song from the album could you release without some controversy? Certainly not "F*ing In Rhythm and Sorrow," as the title was captured on the record sleeve.

Bjork, who was already fronting a band at age of 11, has said she wanted to capture the innocent along side the dangerous in these lyrics. I am not sure that makes me feel much better. Makes me wonder if she had been internalizing the leers of men at that young age, while still sorting out her own sexuality? She's also in her early 20's when The Sugarcubes record Life's Too Good, but looks barely 15. Just how much creepier can the song get?

Yet, it launched The Sugarcubes, and more accurately, Bjork to international stardom, solo albums, swan dresses, and fights with the paparazzi, even though it was barely a hit in a few countries. Pretty good if she is the girl who "scrabbles in the earth with her fingers and mouth." 

In retrospect, maybe I should just keep my mouth shut about my birthday. I probably share more with the young girl of the song (I did spend my most infamous birthday picking dandelions out of the earth with my bare fingers, but not my mouth) than I do with the creepy old guy, even though I am at least the second of those adjectives. Besides even as I hurdle into my 7th decade of life, I still can't grow much of a beard.

The Sugarcubes. "Birthday." The Sugarcubes. Elektra, 1988. Link here.

Day 245: Lou Reed "Coney Island Baby"

Day 247: Otis Redding "Try A Little Tenderness"

See complete list here.