The Sugarcubes: Life's Too Good (1988)

Here's one that just totally blew me away on first listen. I mean, damn, that voice!

I've never been a fan of Bjork's solo work (though, to be fair, I've never really listened to much of it). And even the Sugarcubes albums don't get a ton of playtime from me these days. But this one will always hold a special place for me. I think that's largely because of the pairing of Bjork's unique and wondrous vocals, so novel at the time, with a fascinating set of tunes, something the Sugarcubes themselves couldn't replicate (though each of the follow-up albums had a few decent tracks).

A blend of arty, skewed post-punk and straight new wave-ish pop, Life's Too Good sounds like nothing before it. And, yeah, a lot of that is the strangeness of Bjork's vocals and her unusual Icelandic accent; but you also have to give some credit to the varied musicality of the songs, unpredictable yet inherently catchy, aided by a dynamite rhythm section, interesting Police-adjacent guitars, and occasional horns.

"Birthday" is the obvious entry point here, a tour de force for Bjork, and an intricate, entrancing tune to boot. "Deus" is similarly haunting, while "Coldsweat" has a wicked groove. But plenty of songs are more upbeat pop, like the rollicking horn-filled "Motorcrash" and the rockabilly-tinged "F***ing in Rhythm & Sorrow."

The biggest drawback to the album (and the band) for me is co-vocalist Einar Orn, whose spoken-word shouting is terribly grating (and, worse, distract from Bjork). (I have similar feelings about the B-52s' Fred Schneider -- like, can't you just let the nice ladies sing?) That said, it's tolerable in small doses as a narrative counterweight to Bjork (who, frankly, I suppose I also find tiring without some occasional grounding) -- like on opening track "Traitor" and the afore-referenced "Deus."

(I saw the Sugarcubes live in the late 80s back in Chicago, and Einar's annoying bark was a total buzzkill; I suppose that's kinda tarnished the band for me ever since. But the Primitives played a great opening set.)

It's definitely an of-the-moment record, and something I don't grab all that often, but it made a huge impression at the time and I still like to take it out for the occasional spin.

Here's the "Birthday" video:
...and the "Deus" video:
...and "Motorcrash":
And here's an entire concert from 1988:

Comments

  1. Humanfund here. Totally agree about Bjork's voice. "Birthday" is one of those songs that I have to freeze and just listen to if it comes on.

    I also saw them in late 80s touring this album, in NYC on a post graduation trip with some high school friends, the Sugarcubes happened to be playing with Ziggy Marley. I forget who opened for whom.

    Totally agree about Einar being annoying. Instead of comparing him to Fred of B52s, who actually plays an instrument and who I would argue vocally complements the females, I'd liken him to Flavor Flav, a court jester type. Perhaps having Bjork with Einar is preferable to Bjork solo?

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    1. Good comparison; I have a similar take on Flavor Flav -- Public Enemy have one of the most compelling (if not THE most compelling) voice in hip-hop in Chuck D, why let this guy dilute that power? But maybe with both Bjork and Chuck D, it's almost too much of a good thing, and would lose some of its force if left unadulterated. It's hard for me to assess whether Life's Too Good would've been better without Einar; as I said, I don't care for Bjork's solo work, and maybe that's in part because of the counterpoint added by Einar's intrusions on the Sugarcubes albums -- but I think it's mainly because the songs were just far more interesting to me.

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