Friday, 13 February 2015

50 albums to take to my grave #16: Life's Too Good

My first dalliance with the music of Iceland came aged 16 when Simon Greetham introduced me to the Sugarcubes at college. Their debut album had garnered all kinds of glowing reviews, was sitting atop the indie charts, and boasted three cracking singles. Of course, the one everyone knows and loves is Birthday, without doubt one of the great indie tunes of all time.

The one thing that endeared me to the Sugarcubes was that it sounded so different to anything else I had heard before, yet retained a certain degree of familiarity so as to make it not completely alien to me. Björk’s voice was that of a sweet, but mischievous Arctic pixie, cheekily cavorting around a playground of peculiarly arranged instruments played by bandmates who at times didn’t sound like they really knew what they were doing. Except, of course, that was deliberate – they most definitely knew what they were up to.

Then there were the playful interruptions of Einar Örn which were unfairly knocked by critics. I loved Einar’s contributions; they were fun and quirky (and I like quirky). There was always something rather chaotic and rambunctious about the Sugarcubes’ music and Einar’s vocals added to that, in a good way in my opinion. It was kind of like early B-52s with Icelandic accents.

The Sugarcubes’ debut album ‘Life’s Too Good’ is an absolute must have record. It’s so unashamedly playful, it’s almost childlike. Birthday is perhaps the most downbeat track on it as, elsewhere, Björk yelps and whoops like a little girl who’s drunk too much fizzy pop, and Einar squawks excitedly about meeting God and teaching angels to play the harmonica! Meanwhile guitars that sound like they’ve been borrowed from the Cure circa 1979 chime away awkwardly as choppy, nutty, Talking Heads-esque percussive flurries not only bind the whole thing together as a wonderful whole, but actually make it all so irresistibly danceable. Ha, yes, an indie band you could dance to in 1988 – who’d have thought it? Well, I say dance, maybe ‘spasmodically twitch’ would be a more accurate description of the movements you were likely to make whilst ‘Lifes Too Good’ invaded your soul, but let’s not split hairs here.

It’s odd though, because the Sugarcubes were formed from the remnants of dark, gloomy anarcho-punk bands, in particular Kukl. This new band was supposed to be a bit of light relief, a joke even. That they would become one of Iceland’s greatest exports is somewhat ironic, but it is testament to how different they were, how ‘Life’s Too Good’ connected with people, and how the Sugarcubes probably just got lucky – right place, right sound, right time.

They would go on to make two more albums; the patchy but still enjoyable ‘Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!’ deserved far more praise than it received. Its brilliant single Regina rates as one of the band’s finest moments, with Björk singing a tribute to an acclaimed local journalist while Einar rants about lobsters. Their swansong ‘Stick Around For Joy’ contained the band’s only bonafide hit single, the perfectly-titled Hit. A surprisingly good remix album (‘It’s It’) followed, but the Sugarcubes never quite recaptured the excitement and acclaim they garnered at the beginning and they called it a day in 1992. Björk went solo and the rest is history.

The Sugarcubes are still regarded as an important band in the story of so-called alternative music, and rightly so. They became popular by accident but stayed true to themselves and defied convention. Perhaps most bizarrely of all, they can still put a smile on this cynical old git’s face.

And as a bonus treat, here' the original Icelandic version of Birthday.


  1. Perfectly written, Robster, as usual, and it pretty much should convince people to listen to this classic album ... that's if there is anyone in the whole wide world who hasn't done so already. But what I like most is that you chose the closing song: in all the years it is my favourite from the album. Apart from 'Birthday', of course ....

    Years ago I had the chance to find out what KUKL sounded like, something I always wanted to do: not the easiest band to listen to, to put it mildly. Which, as you rightly said, makes the transformation into The Sugarcubes even more curious ...

  2. Fully agree with you and Dirk, this is easily one of my favourite albums. I am currently trying to get hold of it in all of its different coloured sleeves! The Icelandic version of Birthday is to me even more spine tingling than the English version. I have an Icelandic version of the 'Here Today...' LP which gets more listens than the original. I think the foreign language (to my ears anyway) makes Bjork's voice sound even more extraordinary.

    Oddly, I have never got into Bjork's solo albums in the same way as I loved The Sugarcubes.