The Sugarcubes – Life’s Too Good
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Most people familiar with the Sugarcubes have become so either retroactively via the solo career of founder member Björk (née Guðmundsdóttir) or through their "hit" song "Birthday," which may be considered Björk solo career phase one for the purposes of our argument. It's a delightful song, to be sure—a perfectly edible nebula of sound, neatly lassoing the worldview of a spunky five-year old with "spiders in her pocket," who may or may not be our young singer (precocious enough to record an album at 11). But over the light-yet-expansive arrangement, Björk's voice rides larynx-burningly roughshod—it's ultimately a showcase for her instrument. The Sugarcubes, however briefly they may have lasted, were a band, not Björk & Her Cubes.
Tracing their origins back to groups such as Theyr and K.U.K.L., the members of the band had all done time in various post-punk or more explicitly experimental outfits, even collaborating with Current 93 and various members of Psychic TV at one point (Island). The creation of the Sugarcubes was a direct result of the dead-end of the anarcho-punk route (K.U.K.L. put out two records on Crass' label) and the desire to turn towards more accessible sounds. Yet the dark and chaotic edge of these early incarnations remained—sometimes as pure sonic nausea creeping 'round the corner of the poppy surface of their songs ("Mama," in which the loveliest of melodies plays host to a horde of shrieking spirits, wailing susurrations in their strain to be released), sometimes in the wicked subject matter of Life's Too Good's strangest material ("Sick for Toys," the gormy churn of "Take Some Petrol, Darling").
My own introduction was the song "Motorcrash"—a tune far more indicative of the careening-yet-restrained orgy of the 'Cubes as a whole. Over jazz-inflected new wave as tightly wound as a German paratrooper's anus, Björk and co-conspirator / Flavor Flav-figure Einar Orn trade lines, describing "a proper motorcrash, lots of spectators"—she rolling her voice around like the smooth spinning of tires on their way to the fatal moment, he observing her approach in raw, slightly goofy spoken word—"Believe you me, I know what innocent looks like." The music is all bright spangles and the bounce of rubber-on-concrete—odd for such a grim subject. Or is it? In the end, the listener wonders whether the song is about the crash itself or the girl on the bicycle riding past. I'll go with the latter—the Sugarcubes seem to gather darkness about themselves only to know the face of their enemy—taking things too seriously was never their game.
Actually, that's something of an understatement—Life's Too Good reads almost like a manifesto for a playful new vision of reality. Consider the album's first audible lines, spoken by Einar—"My punctuality is well known / When the Revolution takes place / I'll be late." Read as the diary of a post-punk survivor, it's hard not to see the Sugarcubes as antidote to the po-faced politicizing of the self-proclaimed "avant-garde." Yet their talents were inevitably shaped by that environment—at their best they took the raw energy and spontaneity of that scene and projected it into a rumbling undercurrent that undid the constraints of pop music while retaining its accessibility. On numbers like "Blue Eyed Pop" and "Delicious Demon," they're so blissfully communal as to remind one of the B-52s' brand of kinetic kitsch, yet you know around the corner they're preparing a ridiculous disavowal of the foibles of God ("Deus") or a slithering, wetly gross vivisection of the meanings of motherhood ("Mama").
In some ways, the solo career of Ms. Guðmundsdóttir was inevitable—her voice too distinct, her ambitions too big for the humble confines of Iceland's biggest punk band. But for a moment, a brief, transcendent moment, there existed just that—a band—a sharp white flash of silly joy, cartoon Monkees on poppers, Northern pixies playing at being the new Pixies. As brilliant as the personal achievements of Björk may be, they've yet to approach the nearly-awkward thrill of hearing a record as perfectly out-of-nowhere as Life's Too Good for the first time, and they've certainly given precious little back to the community of freaks and strangers that made such an anomaly as the Sugarcubes not only possible but popular. Stars burn brightly, but they burn alone—the glory implied by the 'Cubes ascension was one we could all share in—a dorky kind of love. Alas, like "Deus," it does not exist.