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.
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.
Diversity: 2/5 Unfortunate, really.
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)
- Pagan Poetry
- It’s Not Up To You
- Hidden Place