A remix album that shouldn't be dismissed as a mere stopgap
Pity the remix album. Usually thought of as a water-treader between official releases or as a nod to a dance scene the artist probably doesn't belong to, they've gotten a bad rap over the years. In the late '90s, it was even worse, because all manner of otherwise undanceable bands were hopping on the "electronica" bandwagon in an effort to be ahead of a curve that never actually arrived (no matter how many records the Prodigy sold). Cornerstone fact: Bush put out a remix LPonly be called Deconstructed, which might have poisoned the well for the rest of the members of the alt-village.
But while Björk's Telegram is indeed a collection of remixes (most of which originally appeared as B-sides to import singles from her second album Post), it shouldn't be dismissed as a mere stopgap. In fact, 13 years on, it's an important component in Björk's development as a recording artist.
Released a handful of months before Björk's game-changing third album Homogenic, Telegram shows Björk expanding the limits of her sound and diving even deeper into the sea of sonic weirdness that would eventually inform (and some would say mar) her 21st century output. Both her first two albums — 1993's Debut and 1995's Post — were pretty odd, full of funky keyboard orgies and the singer's trademark fairy voice. Post was an especially strange album, as it saw Björk rummaging through industrial thrum ("Army of Me"), the developing haunt of trip-hop ("Isobel") and a truly left field Tin Pan Alley rave-up ("It's Oh So Quiet"). Telegram takes those urges and twists them into full-blown obsessions, spinning Björk's fractured worldview further and further into a universe inhabited only by her (and partner Matthew Barney, probably).
"My Spine" is a great example, as it consists of little more than Björk's voice and a jittery, out-of-tune xylophone filling in the gaps. Somehow, even without a single drum, she manages to create a complicated rhythmic stew, apparently with the power of her will. That's followed by "I Miss You (Sunshine Mix)," a deep, groovy, swaggering song that takes the original's jittery worldbeat biting and turns it into New Jack Swing. The remix of "Isobel" brings in the groovy jazzbo sound that Björk used in her live performances during the Homogenic era, creating a sort of live remix using organs, deep bass, samplers and strings.
In fact, listening to Telegram now becomes a fun game of "Spot the Kernel" that would later became full albums. The punishing, distorted rhythmic attack on "Enjoy (Further Over The Edge Mix)" would pop up later on Medulla, while the moody hum of "You've Been Flirting Again (Flirt Is A Promise Mix)" wouldn't have sounded out of place on Vespertine. "You've Been Flirting Again" is also the clearest antecedent to Homogenic, as it floats mostly on a languid orchestral ocean — add a beatbox, and you've got "All Neon Like." But don't think that Telegram can only be enjoyed as an anthropological artifact (either of the era or of Björk's career). Most of these songs are too strange for radio but not at all alienating, especially considering how light and dreamy Björk had (the Homogenic era represented her greatest control of her instrument). Telegram works the same way the best Björk albums do: in spite of itself, and gloriously so.