People are always keen to pronounce some aspect of music dead. In pseudo-coroner status, folks have claimed that rock is dead, vinyl is dead.... More recently, the single has been described as close to registering no pulse. Single sales have moved downward, and in Australia (although single sales actually ascended slightly), there's been talk of binning the concept of singles charts. So instead of having the number one song in the country determined by record sales, airplay charts would become the prime indicator of what was popular which is an irksome concept on several levels. As Sydney Morning Herald music writer Jon Casimir pointed out, airplay is determined by what's on a radio station playlist, which is ultimately shaped by a particular station's agendas. A dance station ain't gonna play goatee rock, and vice versa. Given how homogenous and bland most radio stations are, an airplay chart would be self-fulfilling and undemocratic. Not that the Top 40 is a musical oasis either, but it does enable some level (however slight, and however consumerist) of listener participation and word of mouth. And besides, without singles, what other item can you add to your record-store shopping basket when you're a teen with a handful of pocket-money pennies or retail-slavery notes (besides the CD wet wipes, that is)?
Being a penniless recordstorephilic high-schooler meant one thing for me: forensic singles-rack browsing and the sort of discerning decision-making people don't even enter into when casting votes at a Federal Election. Did one chance it on the unknown B-sides (could be flaky outtakes, could be over-ambitious silliness) or go for the safe route of live versions of familiar songs? Sometimes you were only offered a Muzak-style "karaoke" version of a hit single. Or you could play remix roulette and hope one of the four B-side single remixes wasn't just overdone with a bullying disco beat. Or denuded of all the aspects of the song that you actually liked in the first place and replaced with some vague assortment of hi-tech stainless-steel coldness.
And then there was the extreme fandom aspect of this, where singles are snatched up, sans analytical breakdown of the set lists, because this is your favorite band, and anything they release is a mandatory purchase (even if you already have the albums the single is off. Even if you have to get the single carted in from Germany). So, this is why I reckon singles need to stay put. There's the fan aspect. And on the other hand, there's the taste test aspect. And there's the distinct thrill of discovering some lesser-known songs that are just brilliant; of satiating that craving when an artist is between albums; of knowing that even in their spotlight-reduced moments, even when it's not asked of them an artist you love can still create something brilliant.
And so we come to Björk's "Cocoon," the latest single from last year's insular and scintillating Vespertine. While Björk doesn't make my "lose brain and spend money on getting single in from Germany" list, I knew I had to get this release when a review in the local broadsheet concluded that "Cocoon," in all its parts, was the reason why people should buy singles. The title track has a stunning vulnerability: Björk's intimacy is touchingly simple and upfront, and thus utterly emotion-seizing; and the programming is both glacial and warm, evoking a snowblowing softness. The B-sides are derived from Vespertine, albeit touched up, refashioned and rendered anew. Track 2 is a "music box" version of "Pagan Poetry," and is accordingly brimming with keening rhythms. The "music box" element of the song is probably more recognizable than the "Pagan Poetry" part, but it nevertheless twinkles nicely, and retains the organic, inventive and introspective feel of Vespertine. The same too can be said about Track 3, which is "Sun in My Mouth (recomposed by ensemble)." This version stirs a new life into the Vespertine track, with the more pronounced string sampling, and prismatic tremors giving the song a variegated shimmer. To quote Björk on the title track, it's "gorgeousness."