BJÖRK: DEBUT LIVE (1994; 2003)
1) Human Behaviour; 2) One Day; 3) Venus As A Boy; 4) Come To Me; 5) Big Time Sensuality; 6) Aeroplane; 7) Like Someone In Love; 8) Crying; 9) Anchor Song; 10) Violently Happy.
In 2003, with pregnancy keeping her away from active creative duties, Björk diverted herself by rummaging through a ton of recorded tapes, left over from a decade of touring, and discovering enough of interest to put out a whole big chunk, modestly titled Live Box, with each of four CDs representing selections from the four tours focusing on her first (and best) four albums. Originally, the box was only available as a whole, but already the next year it was chopped up and the four live albums became available separately (for a limited while).
Since Björk is first and foremost a studio artist, and second, a visual entertainer, it is natural to be somewhat wary of the product — and, since it never seems to be an integral part of her discography, to forget it altogether. But once you do get access to the recordings, it becomes obvious upon the very first listen that this is a mistaken attitude. In her «violently happy» prime, Björk's seeker instincts were buzzing everywhere, in respect to everything, and live presentation of her songs gave her a great pretext to go on experimenting with them even further. Unlike so many famous «art rock» acts, a good «Björk live» experience is never construed along the lines of «how faithfully can I reproduce my music on stage?» — it is much more in line with the old Bob Dylan vibe of «how can I give my songs a second life on stage?». For that reason, while I would not go as far as to coerce anybody into collecting live bootlegs, the four discs of Live Box are really a terrific add-on, worth every penny.
And the first of these discs is perhaps the best illustration of what I am saying. All of the tracks on it, except for ʽVenus As A Boyʼ, are actually taken from Björk's little yellow dress performance on MTV Unplugged in 1994 — in other words, a setting that demanded, by definition, that performers rethink and re-sensify their material, and thus, almost no electronic instruments or effects are brought to the table. Instead, songs from Debut are rearranged as a curious eclectic mix of... well, whatever is found at hand.
For ʽHuman Behaviourʼ, for instance, at hand is found a harpsichord, which loyally takes care of not just the basic melody, but also the growling electronic solo at the end of the track — which gets you a-thinkin' that the harpsichord, come to think of it, has a pretty «electronic» sound all by itself, compared to pianos and organs. ʽOne Dayʼ is transformed into a fumbly extravaganza of tablas and chimes, completely dominated by percussion and giving the illusion of Björk performing in the middle of a busting sonic jungle. ʽCome To Meʼ suffers without the tragic orchestration of the original, but the homely mix of tablas, harpsichords, and flutes is still an interesting alternate take on things. And so on — I think that of all the songs, only ʽLike Someone In Loveʼ does not differ too much, because it was a beatless harp-driven song in the first place.
I would never say that the rearrangements «improve» on the originals: Debut was one of the most thoughtfully and sensibly produced and arranged records in 1990s art-pop, and it is unlikely that Björk would have spent as much time coming up with this plastic surgery for a one-time MTV performance as she spent creating the songs in the first place. So, ʽOne Dayʼ will sound less poignant and desperate here, and ʽViolently Happyʼ will have less psycho-menace, and ʽCome To Meʼ will not possess as much of that dark-forest mystery, and the list goes on. But we are really supposed to think the other way here — how, even with the relatively short time elapsed between the release of Debut and this performance, she already had the ability to present the material in such a completely new light — perfectly adapted to the «cozy» setting of a concert in the Unplugged series. Of course, some major credit has to go to her partners as well, particularly the percussionist Talvin Singh (who would eventually go on to become a superstar in the «Asian Underground» movement), the keyboard player Leila Arab, and the other keyboard player Guy Sigsworth — they do some great teamwork here, loyally following the black-haired lady wherever she wishes to go and getting into all the grooves with just the right amount of soul.
In a certain way, Debut Live may be the best album of the four — especially if, like me, you also consider Debut to be not just a «debut», but an album totally on par with everything Björk has done ever since. Here we still have a fresh young artist, not too spoiled by stardom, not yet having gone over the top, drunk with her own genius, and seeming more content to just enjoy her own muse rather than becoming The Great Mother of the Revolution of the Mind. Already bursting with creativity, but not yet overflowing with narcissism. How is this anything other than an unbearably nostalgic thumbs up?