Vespertine by Björk (Review)

Vespertine’ trades the icy bombast of Homogenic’ for deeper, richer, more intimate soundscapes and incredibly revealing lyrics.
Vespertine - Björk

When talking about Vespertine, Björk claimed it to be about being at peace with herself. And considering the fiasco she underwent while filming “Dancer In The Dark” (Björk’s tragic portrayal of an embattled immigrant mother left her with a nervous breakdown, not to mention widely divergent critical opinion), is it any wonder she wants a little of that in her life? Whereas Homogenic was bombastic and confrontational with its icy electronics and dramatic orchestrations, Vespertine goes the opposite route. More akin to Selmasongs, it too is a soundtrack, a soundtrack for an imaginary world of wonder and bizarre intimacy that could only exist in the soul of Björk.

The IDM experiments that shaped Homogenic are largely absent. Or more accurately, they’re still there, but relegated to a more textural role. Since Matmos, everyone’s favorite medical sound collagists, had a heavy role in Vespertine’s production, this isn’t too big a surprise. Occasionally, a little glitch or electronic flutter will make itself known here or there. “Unison” goes so far as to sample from German glitchmeisters Oval, although its inclusion is almost tertiary. Only one song has anything resembling a definable beat, and even then, it never approaches the manic heights of tracks like “Hunter.”

Instead, Vespertine is awash in orchestral arrangements, choirs, and intricate harpwork. If Vespertine is Björk’s attempt to invent her own paradise, then it is a glittering land where the Northern Lights never cease, the angels never cease singing, and the stars shine so brightly they seem within arm’s reach. There are points where these songs sound ready to burst from the beauty within, with Björk’s dramatic, powerful voice the fuse.

But Vespertine’s beauty is also its greatest weakness at times. The lush, dreamlike arrangements that should be bolstering Björk’s unique voice often end up trumping it. Strangely enough, Björk’s vocals sometimes feel outclasses by the instrumentation around them, even becoming the album’s weakest element at times. “It’s Not Up To You” closes with an angelic choir echoing Björk’s lyrics; surrounded by the song’s fluttering strings and electronics, they’re more haunting and memorable than anything Björk did.

Even “Cocoon,” the album’s most intimate lyrical moment, feels oddly compromised. Lines like “Who would’ve known that a boy like him/Would have entered me lightly restoring my blisses” and “When I wake up the second time in his arms/Gorgeousness: he’s still inside me” are painfully revealing. However, they’re sung in a strained, wispy voice, as if it pains Björk to share them. It’s the album’s most honest moment, but also it’s most stilted and frustrating.

But as Vespertine progresses, it picks up strength, as if Björk grows more confident with each step into this place she’s creating. “Pagan Poetry” starts off hesitantly, but grows stronger as Zeena Parkins’ harp merges with the toybox-like electronics. And as Björk howls “On the surface simplicity/But the deepest pit in me is pagan poetry,” it hints at whole levels of untapped meaning. Performed on music boxes, “Frosti” spins forth like a glittering symphony of icicles and newfallen snow, one that might shatter at any moment.

Vespertine’s most ethereal moment lies within “Aurora.” Here, all of the album’s musical elements come together in perfect harmony. Björk’s voice is at its most transcendant, rising up to join the angelic choir and harp melodies circling above. And “Unison” closes the album on a glorious note as Björk sings “Let’s unite tonight” backed by the now-familiar harps, strings, and choirs. Musically, it’s as cinematic and sweeping as anything on “Selmasongs,” but far more satisyfing.

If you were to mention Björk to most people, they’d probably register a blank stare. That, or bring up the swan dress. But Björk is one of those rarities, an artist who thrives on her idiosyncrasies and whose little “isms” are what give her music its beauty and appeal. And if Björk wants to lose herself in her own little world, who can blame her? If it’s even a bit as beautiful as Vespertine makes it out to be, this invitation to join her is truly something to treasure.

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