Posted in Björk, Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Björk – Vespertine – Review

Heyheyhey, so I haven’t written anything in a long while. That’s cause I’m a college student now, so that “three reviews a week” schedule isn’t gonna fly between school, work, and (slippery feeling of dread) a social life. I’ll see if I can work something out.

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This has to stop working at some point, right? No way a single person could make four albums in a row that could each easily cement in my all-time favorites list if I didn’t limit it to one per artist. What kind of freak is this woman? How does she keep coming up with all these intensely resonant, bizarre melodies? Why hasn’t she run out of engrossing sonic textures? How is she still writing every lyric as if it’s going to be the last thing she ever writes? How in the name of God has ever voice somehow gotten MORE expressive and idiosyncratic?

Vespertine is one of the greatest pieces of audio I’ve ever heard. It’s EASILY my favorite Björk album, one that combines the striking personality of Debut, the intruqing textures of Post, and the sweeping sensation of Homogenic. It’s a greatest hits tour of Björk’s strengths, condensed into a filler-free pack of musical Paradise.

That’s a big statement for such a modest album. Björk’s vocals are much less showy, the overall sound is very quiet, and the stakes are intimate instead of the massive Scriptural sweep of the last album. It’s very much a winter album, like Homogenic, but instead of commanding frost dragons from the peak of a furiously wind-spewing mountain, Björk is admiring landscapes from inside by a fireplace (with her true love of course). It’s one of the warmest pictures of coldness ever committed to tape.

Don’t be fooled by the much smaller sound: there’s just as much emotion here as there was on Homogenic (maybe even more) but it’s intensified by what it leaves unsaid. The songwriting is an obvious example: It exchanges Homogenic’s big, obvious, easily accessible (for Björk anyway) hooks for melodies that come across as a more melodic version of the Post approach: use well-chosen notes to create a mood. The album isn’t anywhere near as catchy as the quirky house pop of Debut or the epic choruses of Homogenic, and that’s part of the reason it took me more listens than usual for me to really GET it, but once it clicks it becomes a superior experience emotionally, intellectually, and atmospherically.

The opener “Hidden Place” is a quintessential Björk song in that it brings her obsession with paradox front and center. The verses have a very silky vocal melody that flow into a staccato chorus. The beat carries a very interesting rhythm, timid in a way, as if it can’t decide whether to exist or not. The backing vocals carry a tinge of spiritual flavor to them, reminiscent of Homogenic but not nearly as theatrical.

Bizarre mysticism soon gives way to the intoxicatingly intimate. “Cocoon” lives up to its title, an enveloping exercise in warm minimalism. Everything about it, from the unnaturally soft keyboards to the to that weird clock-like sound that pops in now and then to the layer of staccato staticy sound that manages to sound more gorgeous that static has any right to be. Sealing the deal is Björk’s vocals, which warmly coo with inexpressible intensity. The song, like many on the album, is blatantly sexual (unless it’s using poetic metaphors for sex as poetic metaphors for something else), far more than anything on anything on her previous work. But instead of devolving into exercises of tastelessness, Björk explores what musical and lyrical angles she can come up with relating to a subject so universal, and the results are often astoundingly beautiful.

“It’s Not Up To You” is a look at indecisiveness regarding optimism and pessimism, backed with an extremely evocative arrangement. On the gorgeous chorus, strings become a prominent element for the first time on the album. The whimsical nativity of the beat and melody act as a lusher version of Björk’s Debut musings, and the semi-spiritual backing chorus rears its motifing head once again. It’s one of the most straightforward and accessible songs on the album but none the artistically worse for it.

“Undo” boasts one of the album’s most supremely creative vocal melodies, backed with an arrangement best described as “sunsety.” Not only does effectively combine warmth and distance, but it manages to swell into full-blown mystical properties as more stings and vocals and layers of sound are added. It feels like you’ve just had a scrape with something divine, something unquantifiable, with a proximity somewhere in between the intense presence of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the distant reverence of Talk Talk.

“Pagan Poetry” is my choice for the best song on the album, which apparently is not all that popular but that doesn’t bother me. It returns to thickly atmospheric mysticism with the album’s iciest arrangement yet. It has another fantastically resonant, creative melody that manages to also have a memorable chorus, but the real hook of the song for me is Björk’s backing vocals. The song wouldn’t feel anywhere near as evocative without those melodic vocal fills, but the delicately snowy keyboards and windily fuzzy beat would still fare well. Björk pulls out some jaw-droppingly gorgeous vocals in all parts, and the lyrics are some of the album’s most emotional and imaginative. I will say it’s coda is a bit repetitive, but I didn’t mind the codas on Homogenic so I don’t have a problem with this one.

After the beautifully crystal-like instrumental “Frosti”, we get the powerful “Aurora.” It’s definitely the most Homogenic-esque song on the album, with Björk’s most intense and massive vocal performance carrying her most bombastic lyrics. The arrangement isn’t thick by the standards of that album, but it’s absolutely luscious and inviting. The song as a whole has the feel and power of a musical prayer, albeit to a bizarre deity of Björk’s mind. Hey, maybe we can add some songs from this album to Homogenic: The Musical as praise songs! I love worldbuilding.

Then we get three songs that, while there’s nothing really wrong with them, are definitely less memorable then everything else on Vespertine. “An Echo A Stain” has an interestingly lethargic melody that’s very nice and romantic, but it’s warbly arrangement lacks the evocative power so common on the other songs. At least the strings are still nice. “Sun In My Mouth” has a very pretty musicbox-ish arrangement, but I almost always forget about it unless I’m listening to it. The melody is easily the weakest on the entire project, but the production and vocals make it pleasant while it’s on (I especially like how the vocals start to mirror and meld with the strings). “Heriloom” is VERY interesting sonically and sticks out admits the rest of the album, combining semi-tribal percussion with semi-industrial atmospheric hums, but suffers from another weakish melody and a lack of interesting affectations in the vocals.

Any lack of resonance, though, is immediately forgiven with the achingly depressive “Harm of Will”, with more powerful vocals and lyrics. The arrangement is much more straightforward and brings the stings front-and-center, swelling in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative or cheap.

The closer “Unison”, then, is just amazing. The creative melodicism is back, the arrangement is quirky and gorgeous, the vocals are intensely felt, and the lyrics bring the cool imagery and deeply personal feelings of the album to a satisfying close. It’s not easy to describe (what Björk song is?) but it feels immensely complete in a way all closers should.

Is it diverse? Not really. Does it have any instantly memorable melodies? Only a few. Is it accessible? Depends on what you mean. Will it get anything other than the top grade? No. The ways in which this album works are so alien that they’re difficult to pin down, but rest assured it has everything to do with the powerful sounds and emotions at play here. I liked it alright when I first listened to it, now it’s my favorite album by one of my favorite artists. Keep on truckin’ Björk, you’re doing the Lord’s work.

Music: 5/5

Identity/Themes: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Vocals: 5/5

Diversity: 2/5 Unfortunate, really.

Resonance: 5/5

EXPERIENCE: The pixie has basically been driving you insane, so you decide to sit down and tell it off. You discover it’s very timid and doesn’t do well in conversation, making a proper verbal confrontation difficult. Through persistence, you discover all that the pixie is a deep, multilayered individual that you can’t stay mad at.

10+/10 (freaking duh)

Best Songs:

  1. Pagan Poetry
  2. Aurora
  3. Frosti
  4. It’s Not Up To You
  5. Hidden Place

Listen here:

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Posted in Björk, Cosmic Masterpiece, Essential Albums, Music Reviews

Björk – Homogenic – Review

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I have to be blunt: I do not enjoy this album as much as Debut and Post. I say this while acknowledging that it’s better than both of those albums. My artistic appraisal process is weird.

The reason for my temptation to dismiss this album outright (one that’s thankfully easily resisted for reasons I’ll explain in a bit) is that Björk’s casual steps away from the devilish little pixie she was on Debut have finally cemented. She is no longer an adorable-yet-obviously-capable woman with a wicked sense of humor and a quirky approach to music, she is an operatic goddess. And yeah, she plays that persona very well, but I find it more alienating and less personal, and since her personality was what invested me in her in the first place…yeah, this nitpick becomes an annoying subliminal problem for me.

This isn’t helped by the fact that TWO of the mere ten songs here fail to excite me that much. “All Neon Like” follows in the footsteps of “Like Someone in Love” from Debut and “You’ve Been Flirting Again” from Post (a song with minimalist backing carried almost entirely by Björk’s voice), and it’s the worst of those three by a good distance. Not only is the near six-minute runtime completely excessive, but the bludgeoning beat grows old really fast. It’s a shame, because not only are the vocals and lyrics excellent as usual, but there’s some lovely shining synths in the background that could have served the backing track purpose perfectly fine on their own. Instead, I have to hear a dull groove for an abnormally long time. It’s tolerable, but not much else. The other weak point is the very next song, “5 Years”, which is also driven by an ugly, style-free beat, a complete lack of atmosphere, and most damning of all: the album’s least interesting and evocative lyrics. The unnecessary harshness of these songs showcase Björk’s newfound towering overlady position at its very worst, without bothering to be anywhere near as menacing as “Army of Me” or even the album’s own “Pluto.” They’re easily the weakest songs Björk had committed to tape at this point, which makes me question why so many consider this her masterpiece (or even worse, her only album worth your while).

And yet none of this stops me from giving this album the highest possible grade I can give. No, I’m dead serious. For one simple reason: this is a sonic MASTERPIECE. If this isn’t the best produced album I’ve ever heard, it’s at least up there with Remain in Light and Loveless. If I could live in this album, I would. If I could have a conversation with this album, I would. If I could settle down and have kids with this album…well, I don’t know how I would do that, but I would sure as heck try. Any problems I might have with Björk’s presence being not what I really want out of her or two songs that don’t do anything for me are absolutely squelched by the fact that the rest of this album simply SOUNDS untouchably fantastic. Seriously, this was made in 1997?            How is that even possible? Where did all these shards of cosmic, icy, explosive deity come from? This is definitely the best “winter” album I’ve ever heard; it sounds like a snowstorm converted into music.

The other important element at play is the melodies, which are possibly even better then Debut. The songwriting on this album gets a lot of flak for its heavy reliance on repetitive codas, but the choruses that get repeated are often so jaw-droppingly powerful that I wish they could go on forever.

For the third time in a row, the first four songs are the high point, and they blow pretty much anything from Debut or Post out of the water. The curtain-opening synths and instantly unforgettable percussive bass that open “Hunter” are right up front with the unstoppably powerful emotions and sounds you’ll find all over this album. Björk enters, echoing as if from the peak of a mystical mountain, and immediately establishes dominance over the landscape of this album, treating its universe as her own personal playground. I didn’t make that “goddess” comparison earlier for hyperbole’s sake: her presence really is that shaking, bellowing as she projects her colorful ideas and exaggerated emotions all over her personal world. In a few parts of this opener, we get a taste of one of the album’s main motifs: electronic textures combined with string textures and melodies. This is taken to gorgeous heights on “Joga”, featuring one of those impeccable codas and soul-shattering choruses I was talking about earlier. Both the strings and synths are perfect, melodic and textural at the same time, to say nothing of the vocal melody, which sounds like one of those ideal compositions that don’t actually ever get written. It almost hurts to listen too, it’s so overwhelmingly beautiful. “Unravel” brings the scale down considerably, creating a comparatively modest but equally goosebump-inducing sonic tapestry, managing to somehow be one of the saddest and most romantic things I’ve ever heard. It’s slow, sticky, sweet, and makes a good contrast to the indescribably epic “Bachelorette.” Not only is the melody absolutely amazing, but Björk takes her voice to its absolute expressive height, creating a massive epochal communication of pure being. Oh, and the lyrics just may be the album’s best as well.

Once again, nothing reaches the height of those first four, but not for lack of trying. After the disappointing “All Neon Like”/”5 Years” rut, we get the pretty good “Immature”, an introspective self-hatchet job that finally realizes the potential of the harsh sound of the last two songs: an affecting tool for flogging both yourself and the person who failed you. These feelings climax in “Alarm Call”, Björk’s personal enlightenment anthem. As you might expect, it’s a lot quirkier and less soulful then most other people’s enlightenment anthems (perhaps best exemplified in the album’s most famous line, an extremely memorable precision F-strike about Buddhism), and as usual the melody, lyrics, and vocals are fantastic.

The abrasiveness suddenly comes back after that moment of triumph in the absolutely terrifying “Pluto”, which bludgeons you over the head with the sheer weight of its anger and chaos, to the point where the coda is basically Björk letting out blood-frying scream after blood-frying scream. It could not be more different from the closing “All is Full of Love”, a return to form gorgeous enough to induce reverent tears. It’s cathartic, soothing, luxurious…maybe not the epic climax I would expect from the album thus far, but I can’t think of a better one.

Since I love this album so much and like the idea of it being Björk’s personal universe (just because I don’t find it as resonant doesn’t mean I can’t find it cool), instead of the usual wrap-up, I present to you…Homogenic: The Musical! The story of the little universe that could, shoved into a semi-Judeo/Christian mold because that’s all I can think of. Enjoy!

Bachelorette – Creation of the World

Joga – The Creation of the Sentient Soul

Hunter – The First Contact with Deity

All Neon Like – The Delivery of the Scriptures (probably the lyrics to Homogenic)

Unravel – The First Great Tragedy, Rise of the Evil AntiBjörk

Immature – Frustration at Allowing the Existence of the Evil AntiBjörk

5 Years – The Battle Against the Evil AntiBjörk

Alarm Call – The End Times, Defeat of the Evil AntiBjörk

Pluto – Punishment of the Wicked

All is Full of Love – Oh yay paradise

Music: 5/5

Identity/Themes: 4/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Vocals: 5/5

Diversity: 5/5

Resonance: 5/5

EXPERIENCE: The pixie now has a universe.

10+/10. Yes, this means I now consider Debut and Post 10+s as well. Best Song: Joga

Posted in Björk, Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Björk – Post – Review

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If there were any misconceptions about Björk’s gravity as a performer due to the lovable adorableness of Debut, she made a point to completely destroy them within the first ten seconds of Post. Zap! BWOM! Super-menacing synth loop! Björk doesn’t screw around. Post starts by confounding expectations and shattering whatever artistic chains most artists would allow themselves to be wrapped in if they started with something like Debut. Hooray for unpredictability!

“Unpredictable” is a good word for Post in general, but the best word is “colorful.” No two songs sound completely alike, and the result is an extremely punchy album that sounds…well, exactly like the cover. Björk herself has retained her mischievous, charismatic edge and wonderful vocals, so the soul and personality of the music remains instantly recognizable through all the hues and shades. As far as diversity goes, it’s a best-case scenario.

Now okay so this is all great BUT. The melodies on this album are really sub-par. Most of the songs barely have a hook, and since Björk’s vocals are at their most enjoyable when they’re playing off a bonkers melody, this is a distracting issue. I understand that some of these songs were constructed more as rants then singalongs, but an entire album’s worth of them really isn’t appealing to me. It’s a good thing the arrangements and lyricism are so sharp and memorable.

Most people single out the opening “Army of Me” as the best song, and though I don’t agree, it’s nothing short of gripping. The dark, confrontational synth arrangement is as striking as Björk’s no-nonsense vocals. This is especially impressive because the vocals did most of the heavy lifting on Debut, which was well-produced but often derivative.

The arrangement is also the highlight of “Hyperballad”, with its soft crashing synth waves and pitter-patters, its otherworldly whirs and stringy shines. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it, and when complimented with surreally emotional lyrics and a beautiful vocal performance it becomes the highlight of Post for me. “Modern Things” isn’t much worse, though; another bizarre tonal shift with a mood that can only be described as soothingly apocalyptic. The arrangement makes each layer of sound easily discernable, growing quickly from its minimalist start to form some kind of demented Apple product presentation music.

Like Debut, the opening four songs are the unstoppable high point, rounded out by “It’s Oh So Quiet”, a hilarious old-timey part-Broadway-part-vaudeville-part-French cafe that subverts its premise in a way similar to “There’s More to Life Then This.” It’s not as brilliant as that song, but it’s great fun while it’s on and if you’re like me then you’ll have no problem with the intentionally saccharine arrangement.

From then on, there’s less memorable ideas but just as much vibrant, contrasting musical color. “Enjoy” has an arrangement that’s a bit too similar to “Army of Me”, but the unpredictably altered vocals, interesting lyrics, and funky horn frills elevate it. “You’ve Been Flirting Again” is a disarmingly gorgeous tearjerker. I think of it as a more refined version of “Like Someone In Love”: nothing but Björk’s voice and a soft arrangement, though the minimalist strumming guitar has been swapped for a constant underpinning of strings. Works for me! Continuing that sound is “Isobel”, which extends into full-on modern classical territory, albeit with crystal synths and spicy percussion. “Possibly Maybe” is a tad icy and distant for my taste, though it is rather elegant and the lyrics are brilliant as usual. “I Miss You” is more up my alley, a quirky and nigh-indescribable slice of pixie magic. “Cover Me” is awe-inspiring in its hollow, vast simplicity. It’s the musical version of watching a storm from inside while gathering the strength to venture out, and the effect is incredible. The album ends on a note just as strong, a “love letter to sound” named “Headphones.” The meticulous layers and fun twists throughout the subdued runtime are both reverent and fun, dripping with pure sonic inspiration.

The biggest difference between Debut and Post, besides the better arrangements and worse melodies on the latter, is that Post takes itself a lot more seriously and allows itself to throw some proper hooks in your soul. It didn’t quite grab me the way Debut did, and I do kind of miss the naivety that fueled so much of the creativity on that album, but musically I’ll take either one. If I want more satisfyingly unconventional melodies, I’ll pop in Debut, if I want amazing production I’ll pop in Post. They make quite a nice deserted island pair, and cover pretty much the entire emotional spectrum. All this is to say I don’t know which one I like better. Good thing I don’t have to choose!

Music: 4/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 5/5

Diversity: 5/5

Resonance: 5/5

Experience: DANGNABBIT THE PIXIE HAS FOLLOWED YOU TO THE REAL WORLD. Now it’s distorting your emotional landscape and taking your mind to really weird places. Good thing you don’t have any friends to embarrass yourself in front of, eh?

10/10. Best Song: Hyperballad

8/15/16 EDIT: Yeah, this is a 10+ so hard.

Posted in Björk, Cosmic Masterpiece, Music Reviews

Björk – Debut – Review

Bjork-Debut

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I

CANNOT

>>>>>>BELIEVE<<<<<<

I NEVER LISTENED TO THIS BEFORE

Björk has been on my radar for a while, for a couple mostly speculation-related reasons. I like famously unrestrained auteurs (as anyone who has heard me gush about Frank Zappa will attest), and I’ve always felt uncomfortable about how little women are represented in my musical listening habits. No more!

The feeling I got listening to Debut is the same feeling I got listening to We’re Only In It For The Money, specifically “Okay, so the music itself is pretty good, but this artist’s personality is FANTASTIC! I feel like I’ve been spending the album’s runtime getting personally acquainted with them! I need to listen to everything with their name on it RIGHT NOW!”

Thankfully for my sanity, Björk’s catalogue is far smaller than Frank Zappa’s, so I actually have a chance of hearing everything she’s recorded within the next decade. I’ll let you know how this musical ride goes as I go through it, but for now, we’re left with Debut. That’s cool with me.

It’s hard to describe what exactly clicked with me about this album so quickly, but rest assured it has everything to do with Björk herself. The most noticeable thing about her is, of course, her voice. Her vocal style is less about carrying a vocal melody and more about throwing in unpredictable, bizarre, and often downright gorgeous affectations. It’s a stage-like philosophy, but I’ve never heard anyone take it so far. Her vocal frills and mini-riffs are filled with vibrant personality, believable emotion, and winking humor. Even better, her incredible versatility never gets in the way of the actual hooks. These are solid pop songs that worm their way into your brain, provided you like weirdness in your pop music (which I do).

Not that most of the production is abrasively bizarre or anything, just unusual enough to be memorable. It draws heavily from the European house scene of the time, and while it will probably grate on those who don’t like 90s electronic, I found it to be engaging all the way through. I’ll name more specific examples in a bit, but generally the production has the same air of bizarre whimsy created by Björk herself.

And let’s FINALLY get to that. Björk’s sheer presence on this album, both in unity and diversity, is enough to make me give it a perfect score. George Starostin described her as a “pixie”, and as much as I’ve tried I just can’t come up with a better description. Sure, on a basic level, you could just leave it at the fact that she’s absolutely adorable here, but where’s the fun in that (though for the record, this is one of the most squee-inducing albums I’ve ever heard)? Yeah, she’s cute and shy and naïve and giddy and all that stuff, but she’s also a mighty singer with a sharp, snarky sense of humor and a commanding charisma. Her delivery and writing are absolutely engrossing here, and it makes the album much more colorful than most 90s electronica albums.

Her vibrancy makes for a ton of memorable moments. The initial four-song stretch, for example, is pretty much perfect. “Human Behaviour”, besides adding fuel to the “Björk is actually an alien” theories, has her dynamically soaring through a memorably twisted melody, complete with a surprisingly dark synth part underlying the second half. “Crying” is just one brilliant section after another. It’s somewhat haphazard as a whole, but the individual effectiveness of the glistening intro, sharply pronounced verses, atmospheric pre-chorus, emotive chorus, and abrasive post-chorus can’t be denied. “Venus as a Boy” is far lovelier then the concept of “music version of the cover art for a steamy romance novel” should allow it to be, mostly thanks to Björk’s intoxicating delivery and the decadent arrangement. “There’s More To Life Than This” is just a gob-smackingly brilliant “party” song, for reasons that I don’t even need to try and describe because if you’ve heard it even once you know what I’m talking about.

Nothing else on the album equals that initial stretch, but it’s still great. “Like Someone In Love” relies on nothing but a minimalist arrangement and Björk’s voice, and it’s a testament to how captivating they are that it works. “Big Time Sensuality” is essentially a straight-faced dance song, except with Björk singing and a wonderfully fun melody (I haven’t discussed the songwriting much on this album, since it tends to get overshadowed by the way it’s delivered, but rest assure it’s great). I’ve been trying to come up with a description of “One Day” for the last five minutes, and the best I can come up with is “deeply syrup-ily atmospheric.” “Aeroplane” continues the atmosphere in a mystically exotic direction, albeit with occasional intrusions by Zappa-like wacko jazz stuff and Björk’s vocals at their most “place-taking.” “Come To Me” is so warm, human, and just plain adorable that it almost feels like a thesis for the entire album, even if it doesn’t sound like most of it. “Violently Happy” is a bit of a tossoff, but fun and resonant while it lasts. “The Anchor Song” is an interesting arrhythmic experiment, a strange ending to the album but one with a bizarrely twisted kind of beauty.

My gut feeling is to give this album a transcendent score, add it to my personal top 10, and move on. But since I’m now absolutely fixated on hearing everything Björk has ever put out, I’ll hold off on it until I’m more fully aware of this album’s quality within the larger context of her career and output. Still, no promises I won’t come back to this one bump it up to a 10+. This is the most lovable album I’ve heard in a long, long, LONG time.

Music: 5/5

Thematic Content: 5/5

Lyricism: 4/5 It’s less about the actual words and more about how they’re sung, but they’re still pretty great for the most part.

Diversity: 5/5

Resonance: 5/5

Experience: Having your dreams haunted by a mischievous sprite after a long night of partying. Like, the kind of sprite who outright TELLS you that you’re asleep and that it’s like 7:30 AM and you’re supposed to be going to work now.

10/10 (for now). Best Song: I honestly have no idea. Any of the first four, I guess.

8/15/16 EDIT: Yup, this is definitely a 10+, and my favorite album of Björk’s for sheer personality.