To celebrate this week’s release of Björk’s Homogenic, we’re pleased to bring you the third installment of Björk Week by author Emily Mackay!
The pleasure is all mine: Björk and remixing.
Björk’s love of collaboration is not, to her, a sideshow to the main ego feature; it’s a core part of her work. “That’s my biggest turn-on,” she said in the book that accompanied the release of her second album Post. “To meet someone who comes from a completely different place than I do. I’ll show them everything; I’ll give them everything I’ve got. For me, that’s creating: One plus one is three.”
It’s a creative formula that’s both fed into and been nourished by her enthusiasm for remixes. She was a keen mixee right from the days of Debut, comparing her willingness to envisage her songs in different forms to the way that jazz standards or to Bach’s organ fugues were reinterpreted in performance. Debut’s remixes were collected in the nattily titled mini album, All the Best Mixes from the Album Debut for all the People Who Don’t Buy White Labels, but Telegram pushed the remix album even further, existing, as she saw it, as a separate album in its own right, a parallel-universe Post with new forms of the songs as strong as the originals (and, indeed, “more like an album I would buy myself”). Telegram made clear, as contemporary reviews noted, that Björk doesn’t view her music as fixed holy writ, but rather one version of a limitless possibility. “What is most interesting about this album,” wrote Neil Strauss in The New York Times, “is that it makes Post, which featured dance-based collaborations with Tricky and Nellee Hooper, seem like simply another remix album of Björk songs, no more or less definitive than Telegram.”
At the press conference for Homogenic’s release, Björk stated that she’d intended Homogenic, as a purer, “more me” album not to have any remixes, but, well… “The minute I finished it, well I’m completely obsessed for about a year now with Alec Empire, and I think, what happens if one song goes to him?”
Empire, of German techno-noise-punk-art-terrorists Atari Teenage Riot, ended up contributing three mixes to Homogenic’s single releases: the bleak, dark and hard Digital Hardcore 1 version of ‘Jóga’, which retains little of the original song bar distant snatches of vocal, and the Digital Hardcore 2 version, which is even wilder and wirier. Then there’s his Bachelorette remix “The Ice Princess And The Killer Whale”, a haunting, horrorish take with chilly scything noises and ominous bass synth, repeating that warning line: “if you forget my name, you will go astray”, breaking down intermittently into jacknifing drill’n’bass assaults.
There are 15 other remixes and reversions, or in some cases, original versions, as with Björk’s ‘Version of Immature’, subtler and more sophisticated with more prominent piano and shorn of Mark Bell’s bouncy beat. Other highlights include Guy Sigsworth Renaissance rave version of ‘All Is Full Of Love’, former Björk tourmates Plaid’s arch, gently junglist take on the same song, and the tense but jaunty Hunter Mood Swing Mix. Funkstorung also provides a glitchy, computer-malfunction version of ‘All Is Full Of Love’ that foreshadows some of the more fractured and delicate electronic sounds Björk would explore on Vespertine. Mu-ziq’s Hunter remix is very creepy, alternately speeding Björk’s voice and then returning it to normal, amping up the Psycho element in the strings, while leaving Björk’s non-verbal vocalisations at the end clearer. RZA’s Bachelorette remix, sadly his only contribution to Homogenic despite plans for a bigger collaboration, makes clear how much the album’s beats both fit into and are distinct from a hip-hop sound palette: his beautifully judged elaborations suit the song but can’t contain it. Grooverider takes a different approach to the same song, placing Björk’s vocal on his own dark and scary D&B backing. Beck, someone who was often spoken of as Björk’s male counterpart, provides a super-maximal, playful, spooky take on ‘Alarm Call’ in the Bjeck mix, with snatches of Bollywood strings and a harpsichord caught in a malfunctioning printer, and a Theremin apparently trying to play Baker Street from The Twilight Zone.
Björk’s openness to reversioning also extends to live performances, which right from the Debut days were often radically different. During the making of Homogenic she forged a strong collaborative bond with her Icelandic string octet: the live versions they worked out together after making the album evolved as they took the album on tour, and fed into the way she would approach the strings on Vespertine. When the tour reached its Spanish date, she divided the songs up among the octet according to what she now knew about their tastes, and gave them a couple of days to revise the sheet music. “Sibbi [Bernhardsson] had the idea of splitting ‘Jóga’ up into eight voices instead of the original four… Sif [Tulinus] made suggestions for ‘All Neon Like’ based on arrangements around incredibly precise technicalities,” she enthused.
When it comes to Björk’s music, it’s never the end of the story. I interviewed her on the release of Bastards, Biophilia’s remix album, and she reflected again on the open-ended possibilities of dance music in particular. “I think my first albums, it is straight away like this. ‘Big Time Sensuality’ or ‘Violently Happy’ I don’t think the definite best version is necessarily the one on Debut, you know? And even more so on Post: with songs like ‘The Modern Things’ or ‘I Miss You’, you could really imagine it going on in a club, and that’s actually how we played it live, you’d have it extended and we’d put up the bass drum and people would dance… so for example I remember ‘All Is Full of Love’. The version on the video, that’s kind of my version, the version I did first and then afterwards Howie B did the version that actually ended up on Homogenic.”
For her 2005 fan-mixed album Army of Me: Remixes and Covers, released to raise funds for the Asian Tsunami, she surrendered even more control, putting out an open call for submissions. And Biophilia went further still: as well as Bastards, the Biophilia app allowed listeners themselves to deconstruct and remake her songs. It’s an act of courage and openness, two Björk watchwords. As she sings in ‘The Pleasure is All Mine’: “To get to be the generous one/ Is the strongest stance.”