Understated Classics #15: Début by Björk
I got into Début via a cassette from the library, much like I did with Together Alone by Crowded House. I suppose it is less obscure than many of my choices for this strand but I do think that Post is more well-known (because of It’s Oh So Quiet, which we shall mention here only briefly) and that Homogenic is probably more popular among her fans.
What I really like about Début though, as much as the album itself, is the panoply of remixes and alternative versions that surround the release. In this way Post is at least as strong if not stronger and you might recall that I had similar fun when writing about the Orb’s album U.F.Orb a while back. As a result of this, there will be some detours into the remixes and live versions when discussing this album. In particular, I will mention the remix collection the best mixes from the album début for all the people who don’t buy white labels and the recording of an MTV Unplugged show that is available in the Live Box box set.
First though, we should focus on the sun at the centre of this solar system of tracks, remixes, b-sides, beats, croons and tunes. Yes, the album itself. I really like Début over the other Bjork albums because I can see the story running through it much more clearly in this one over all the others. It is my reading of it of course but I see it as the tale of someone who comes to the city (Human Behaviour, Crying), falls in love ecstatically (Venus As A Boy, There’s More To Life Than This, Like Someone In Love, Big Time Sensuality), peaks and becomes content (One Day, Aeroplane, Come To Me), before breaking up (Violently Happy) and reaching some sort of inner peace as a single person (Anchor Song). Of course, nearly all versions of the album now have Play Dead on at the end and I like to swap its place as last track with Anchor Song so that it fits my story board a bit better!
In the beginning
I’ve always found the musical arrangement on Human Behaviour rather unconventional, to this day I can’t quite figure out what is going on in the album version. On the unplugged CD, there is a prominent harpsichord but I can’t find it in the album version. Whatever the very minimal backing actually comprises, it certainly does the job of foregrounding her immense vocal performance - in the seconds up to the (0:50) point when she yodels “Anxiety” for the first time, the map of dance music, pop music and rock music gets changed forever.
Compared to that, the next track Crying is a little less interesting. It is a slightly more pedestrian retread through the same ideas both musically and lyrically (moving the focus of uncertainty from humans generally to an absent lover specifically), one of those songs that are in between A and B on great albums. To my knowledge, there are no remixes of Crying and that seems a little strange because if it has one thing for it, it has a very remixable little riff.
Venus As A Boy though is a palpable hit with its lyrics of naïve sexual adventure backed by that eggshell beat and those indian strings. Perhaps I only say “eggshell beat” because of the video but it feels right somehow. I can still remember seeing the video for the first time on the ITV Chart Show (there was still no MTV for most of us back in 1993!) and there is something sexy about her cooking those eggs - it has stayed with me.
The next two songs are a bit gimmicky. First There’s More To Life (Than This) is a song set in the toilets of the The Milk Bar (according to the album’s sleeve) where in a respite from the night’s clubbing, Bjork rattles off her desire to go off and bag some bread for breakfast. I think we’ve all been there! These days I like the song more than I initially did, when I was younger I did prefer the clubby sections to the a cappella interlude in the toilet. On the Venus As A Boy single there is a (hilariously titled) “non-toilet” version of the song.
Next up is Like Someone In Love, a cover of a show tune and another showcase for her voice. However, it suffers in comparison to her next stab at a cover - her incomparable version of It’s Oh So Quiet. It is a little understated - all harpsichords and cartoon deer - and trips up the pace of the album a bit. It presages the voice and harpsichord aesthetic of her later live gigs and her collaborations with Zeena Perkins around the time of release of Vespertine (see Generous Palmstrokes on the Hidden Place CD single).
After Big Time Sensuality has pumped things up again (be sure to check out the awesome remixes by Fluke on the single), we hit a more relaxed section of the recorded. While One Day could be directed toward to a lover, it seems more likely addressed to a child (the samples of baby talk and the storytelling lyric). It’s a languorous and ambient pop song that slowly and beautifully unfolds over its five minutes. There are some great remixes by the Sabres of Paradise and a bit later in 1996 or so, another great mix by Trevor Morais was included on the Possibly Maybe EP. On MTV Unplugged, it gets spun out nicely too with an intro played on what sound like wine glasses.
Aeroplane is a little more wonky, all jazzy struts and perhaps an overenthusiastic vocal: it is probably the song that conforms to all the stereotypes that people who dislike Bjork’s music profess to hate. Personally, I would not actively seek it out to listen to but I rarely skip it when I am listening to the album.
Come To Me is my favourite song on the album, a sweet soaring vocal backed up by an interesting beat (with tablas! Awesome!) and sweet strings. I think I would love to dance to this with someone. In fact like One Day it could be sung to a child as much as it could to a lover, there is a nice ambiguity to the lyrics. There is a great remix of it by The Black Dog that features on two singles and the remix album, I definitely regard it as her “lost single”.
Violently Happy is the dark twin sister of Big Time Sensuality and I think it details the end of a failing relationship and not the sustaining of a happy one. There is that dissonance between “violent” and “happy”. The remixes are all pretty obvious apart from the one by Graham Massey (a member of 808 State, he is therefore one of my personal heroes) because the beat pretty much dominates the original.
Closing out the canonical version of the album, we have The Anchor Song, which like “Aeroplane” is a rather jazzy number but I am such a musical philistine that I cannot tell you if that is a sax or a trumpet she’s exchanging her powerful vocal throes with. It’s all atmosphere and that is why it succeeds where Aeroplane fails, the instrumentation makes you feel like you are sinking down into either the deep water or, more likely, deep sleep. Again there is a fantastic version by The Black Dog with most of the live instrumentation replaced by an insistent electronic throb. Numerous full-throated live versions abound, there are three on the Live Box box set alone.
Finally Play Dead is the best bonus track on any album ever. A collaboration with David Arnold for the forgotten film The Young Americans and produced by Bomb The Bass big cheese Tim Simenon, it roars out of the speakers with a boldness that is missing from the rest of the songs on Début (because most do not need it). It (and perhaps It’s Oh So Quiet later) presents an interesting glimpse at an alternate universe in which Bjork allied her voice to generic but well-crafted pop songs and became the biggest voice in the universe. Despite Play Dead is an awesome tune, we are probably all glad that did not actually happen and that she got to make iPad apps with David Attenborough instead.
A word or two on remixes
Remixes worth noting (some have been mentioned above). The Underworld remix of Human Behaviour (12:07) is a 12 minute builder that wraps fragments of the vocal around the bass drum figure, while the Bassheads’ version (Edit, 6:32) of the same track takes a more direct approach that sounds a little more dated now. Of all the remixes of One Day that were released under the radar, the “Springs Eternal” (9:47) version is probably the best - taking a top down approach and exploding all the elements, it’s very spare and ambient but is in no way as noodly as all that sounds. If you want something a bit more intense the “Adrenalin - Far Removed” (9:02) version is pretty hyper but it also sounds a bit passé. When it comes to the more poppy tracks, with Big Time Sensuality you want the remixes by Fluke - both the 7” (4:11) and the two 12” (5:52, 5:44) versions are great - and possibly the Dom T. version (6:10) as well. Meanwhile, Violently Happy doesn’t fare so well at the wheels of steel but Massey’s “Other mix” (7:23) does go to some pretty interesting places.