The Sugarcubes

TrackAlbum
Lucky NightStick Around For Joy
BirthdayLife's Too Good
ReginaHere Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
DeusLife's Too Good
HitStick Around For Joy
WalkaboutStick Around For Joy
MotorcrashLife's Too Good
WaterHere Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
BeeHere Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
Delicious DemonLife's Too Good

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The Sugarcubes photo 2

The Sugarcubes (l to r): Einar Örn Benediktsson (vocals/trumpet), Björk Guðmundsdóttir (vocals), Sigtryggur Baldursson (drums), Þór Eldon (guitar), Bragi Ólafsson (bass)

 

 

Contributor: John Hartley

“To do two things, twice at once
It’s so nice
Is there a point?”

If Hamlet had been Icelandic rather than Danish, then his soliloquy contemplating life and death in Shakespeare’s tragedy could well have amounted to a mere three lines. Instead, it falls to Einar Örn Benediktsson to provide the succinct reflection quoted above, in the Sugarcubes’ track Lucky Night. Taken from the band’s third studio album, Stick Around For Joy, the song perhaps defines the Sugarcubes in its lyrical fascination at two things happening simultaneously: male and female vocals providing alternatively bitter and sweet aural sensations above a blend of dance-infused rhythm and indie-inspired melody. Einar provides – as he so often does – a gruff, barked and moaned undercurrent to the honeyed, joyful vocal contortions of his counterpart, Björk. Whilst she delights at being able to both “read a book and ride a train” at the same time, he slightly misses the point and just lists things that go together, like “hammer and saw, babies and nappies”. It is fair to say that Einar’s contributions polarised critics, but without him the Sugarcubes’ magic would perhaps have been less obvious.

The yin yang suggestion permeates much of the Sugarcubes’ existence, sometimes more comfortably than other times, but there all the same. Formed in 1986, the band’s UK debut single, Birthday, describes what is notionally a joyous occasion with what can only be described as somewhat sinister undertones, as “she” celebrates a birthday with her one friend, a bearded man next door whose beard she scratches as they lie in the bathtub. However, there is a yin of literal interpretation to a yang of philosophical consideration; of course she is not really five years old, just being in love can cause people to feel as young and carefree as a child. Maybe the bathtub is outside – she has just touched a raven gliding down the sky after all.

The single, the first off the debut album Life’s Too Good, reached number 2 in the UK Indie Charts. Its B-side was a version of the song sung in the band’s native Icelandic; a similar set of circumstances attributed to Regina, although this single went one better and topped the Indie Chart. [By way of an aside, this was the first track I heard by the Sugarcubes, and I recall impressing my teaching colleagues in an assembly with a translation of the Icelandic lyrics – particularly the bit about examining red basalt clusters – until guilt overcame me and I conceded, playing them the English language version as they left the hall.] Perhaps Regina is an ancient queen, “as old as the sun” even though “the sun is much older”; it is hard to tell. However, we are left under no illusions about Einar’s dislike of lobster.

Confusion is not restricted to deciphering the band’s lyrics either; sometimes it is a vital component of a song’s being. Returning to the Sugarcubes’ debut album and their third UK single, take as an example Deus, in which we are told from the off that “Deus does not exist” before the immediate qualification “but if he does he lives in the sky above me”. Here Björk provides the innocent depiction of a god, “whiter than white and cleaner than clean”, rudely shattered by the comedic reality later described by Einar: “I once met him … he wasn’t white and fluffy … he just had sideburns and a quiff”. All of this theology is sung over a musical accompaniment that has thus far gone somewhat unnoticed within this Toppermost.

For while the words and melodies emanating from Björk and Einar are of huge importance, they are nothing without the guitar of Thor Eldon, bass of Bragi Ólafsson, keyboards of first Einar Melax and later Magga Örnólfsdóttir and the drums of Siggi Baldursson. Indeed it was Siggi’s contribution that was hailed by the band as keeping them going when talk of splitting was rife in between the second and third albums. It was his dance-music inspired rhythms that provided the catalyst for many of the songs on the Sugarcubes’ third and final album Stick Around For Joy.

This album provided the band’s most successful hit in the aptly-titled Hit, a track which reached number 17 in the UK Top 40 and which topped the US Modern Rock chart.

While Hit described the realisation of human conception, follow-up single Walkabout concerned itself with the joys of relationships destined to create that conception. Here the lyrics switch from the romantic and sensual (“the thing that makes me love you is the unforgettable smell of your skin”) to the more mechanical. In this aspect once more can be found the inevitable concept of two, a pairing, yin and yang, describing as the song does the hole and stick, tunnel and train, cove and a ship going in and out of the harbour.

Both Hit and Walkabout were near-perfect fusions of the looser dance, indie and pop genres and this owed as much to the unassuming rhythmic and musical section of the sextet as it did to the two vocalists. The four instrumentalists in the Sugarcubes often proved themselves as versatile as Björk’s vocal range. In Motorcrash the band provide a soundtrack as urgent as the adrenaline rush that accompanies the witnessing of an accident, all parping trumpets, frantic bass playing and staccato guitar strumming, all the time driven along by pumping and rolling drums. By contrast, the meandering, gentle arrangement of Water on Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! suggests a slowly rippling river, melody drifting along as a stick thrown by Winnie the Pooh might do which builds unsuspectingly towards a waterfall as the song concludes. Early in the same album the band recreate the bumbling, quirky flight of the Bee, electric guitars providing the menace of the sting while the keyboards echo the dithering flight of the insect. In all three of the songs it is the simplicity of the musicianship that serves to enhance the lyrical content; there is no competition here, both instruments and voices work together to provide the perfect song.

From the earliest days of the Sugarcubes, however, it was obvious that the main draw, that unique selling point for the commercial music world, would be Björk. When the band finally called it a day after their third album it was perhaps inevitable that she would hit heights the band could only dream of. Perhaps this was always meant to be the way. Perhaps Delicious Demon, a track lurking on side two of the first album, was itself a metaphor. Certainly it allowed Björk to showcase her vocal versatility at an early stage, and lyrically … “One person calls someone to pour the water because it takes two to pour the water. To plough takes two as well, but only one to hold up the sky” sing Björk and Einar separately, yet strangely together. Almost as if they are doing two things, twice at once.

 

The Sugarcubes poster

 

The Sugarcubes discography

The Sugarcubes song lyrics

Björk official website

Einar Örn Benediktsson official website

Bragi Ólafsson official website

Sigtryggur “Siggi” Baldursson (Wikipedia)

Margrét “Magga” Örnólfsdóttir biography

The Sugarcubes biography (iTunes)

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

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