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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Björk: Vespertine

BJÖRK: VESPERTINE (2001)

1) Hidden Place; 2) Cocoon; 3) It's Not Up To You; 4) Undo; 5) Pagan Poetry; 6) Frosti; 7) Aurora; 8) An Echo, A Stain; 9) Sun In My Mouth; 10) Heirloom; 11) Harm Of Will; 12) Unison.

A paradox here — I am in the camp that generally thinks Björk was at her best as long as she still maintained some touch with reality, and that it all started going downhill with Homogenic. And yet, every once in a while I cannot get rid of the feeling that Vespertine might be her greatest album, because it captures her quintessence so damn well. It is vastly experimental, it has nothing resembling a «pop single», it has its serious detractors who correlate the album with the «swan dress» appearance and dismiss it as written at a time when the lady had already went completely gaga — but I totally «get it», and love it, despite any potential flaws.

One thing is for certain: Vespertine is an ideological anti-thesis to Homogenic. Where that album went on a cosmic sprawl, its sonic panoramas extended deep and wide, and its protagonist almost equating herself with The Universal Mother or something, Vespertine should have really borne the title reserved for its second track: ʽCocoonʼ. Or for its first track, for that matter: ʽHid­den Placeʼ. No, it does not matter that the album still has plenty of swooping orchestral passages, or that the entire St. Paul's Cathedral Choir is engaged to add support to the grand finale of ʽUni­sonʼ. Even these elements all fall in with the artist's masterplan: now that she's emulated the macrospirit, it is the turn of the microspirit. If Homogenic was her tribute to the Big Bang, then Vespertine is her tribute to the Miracle of the Womb.

"Through the warmthest cord of care your love was sent to me" — ʽHidden Placeʼ begins fairly unambiguously, accompanied by electronic heartbeat-imitating pulsation and a swarm of over­dubs, all of them mimicking the «bio-music» as could be perceived by an embryo (provided an embryo can perceive any of it... but hey, this is art, not Autechre). You could call this «preten­tious» or «silly», but the thing is, it works for Björk, and it really works for her much better than the Homogenic approach. In fact, there are obvious links to Selmasongs as well: «cocoons», «hiding», «isolation», «beauty in solitude and seclusion», «idiosyncrasies of one's inner world» — all of this fits in much more naturally with Björk's vocal style and twisted fairy-tale hero image than her attempts to embrace the whole universe with her little hands. As wrong as I might be, I think Vespertine is the album that she'd been waiting for a chance to produce all of her life; and if we have von Trier to thank for this (not very likely, but possible), well, thank you.

The potential downside is that the record is much less scattered and diverse than it used to be — Björk's first proverbially «conceptual» album, if you wish, and, as it usually happens with proper conceptual albums, every now and then you have to accept hooks being sacrificed for atmosphere and «ideology». But this is not to say that Vespertine is a hookless record. Gripping choruses are present on several songs like ʽHidden Placeʼ, ʽIt's Not Up To Youʼ, and ʽUnisonʼ — arguably the most immediately accessible pieces on the album. The rest run on hypnotic fuel that takes a bit of time to sink in. Texture, ambience, intonation — a song like ʽCocoonʼ has nothing in addition to these components, but doesn't it actually sound like a «musical cocoon» of sorts, where the soft electronic keyboards play the part of silk threads, subtly wrapping around the singer's voice as she equates physical romance with the «art of shutting in»? Special mention should be made of the quivering falsetto — so fragile and so determined at the same time. I wouldn't go as far as choosing the simple way and calling it «vulnerable», because Björk is not vulnerable — when she gets hurt, she just retreats back in her shell, leaving an ink jet behind — more like the content equivalent of a cat purr after a good mouse hunt, but unforgettable, really, regardless of whatever interpretation you'd care to offer.

Further on down the line, there is ʽUndoʼ, which is probably the closest to her own ʽSong Of The Sirenʼ that she ever got: "It's not meant to be a strife / It's not meant to be a struggle uphill" is another cat purr that injects itself surreptitiously under your skin, until you fall under its spell or, if you're a strong one, realize that it's meant to be a spell and, like Ulysses, start desperately searching for some wax to plug your ears. With its multiple vocal overdubs and wild dissonances, ʽUndoʼ is sort of like a blueprint for Björk's entire next album, but since it actually has a point ("I'm praying to be in a generous mode", she says, and that is exactly what the song is about), it is more captivating than all of Medúlla put together.

One of the most beautiful, and slightly overlooked, things on here is ʽAuroraʼ, featuring some of Björk's loveliest vocal moves ever — you could argue against my point, saying that here she actually breaks out of the «cocoon» to sing a solemn prayer to the goddess of the dawn, but it is a quiet, intimate prayer all the same, propped up by soft keyboards and a harp melody (speaking of which, the harp is consistently the most prominent instrument on all these songs, as if it represen­ted the delicate internal humming of the silken cocoon support — the harp and chimes, that is, which play an equally delicate role on ʽSun In My Mouthʼ, ʽHarm Of Willʼ, and elsewhere). No sprawl, no bombast, just humble beauty, delicacy, and intimacy.

On the other hand, Vespertine is not a hymn to isolation and narcissism: as Carole King once said, "there's room enough for two in the cocoon" (or something like that, anyway), and quite a few of these tunes are essentially love songs — including the solemn coda of ʽUnisonʼ, where she states directly that "I thrive best hermit style / With a beard and a pipe / But now I can't do this without you", and urges her counterpart to "let's unite tonight, we shouldn't fight". I mean, all of that description could make Vespertine sound like one of those depressed, masochistic odes to loneliness, which it isn't in the slightest — it is a very happy, life-asserting, even extravert album, it just shows that all of this is equally possible to achieve inside a closed space. There is no bom­bastic "tear down the wall!", uh, I mean "cocoon", conclusion to this record because it does not need one. ʽHidden Placeʼ may start out with a tinge of insecurity, even paranoia perhaps, but by the time we get to ʽUnisonʼ, everything is just handy-dandy.

If you consciously seek a good turn to jump off the Björk train, do not make the mistake of doing it too early and dismissing Vespertine. Even if you believe that it puts the concept before the music, you will be smart enough to understand that it is one hell of a concept, and later on, that the music isn't too bad, either. Most importantly, this is the perfect compromise between «sym­bolist artistry» and «human behavior» that you will ever hear on a Björk record. Smarter-than-thou she may be here, but she ain't holier-than-thou, and it is arguably the last time that she's sounded so alive, all these vocal parts so befitting a human being rather than an android. An un­questionable artistic peak, a respectful thumbs up, and heavily recommended for professional silkworm breeders worldwide.

2 comments:

  1. While I love Vespertine, the four-song stretch from 'An Echo, A Stain' to 'Harm of Will' is the weakest quartet in Bjork's entire career (not counting Drawing Restraint 9) - and for this reason I never really think of it as Bjork's greatest album, as strong as the first half of the album is.

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  2. A great Bjork review again. I agree in considering this to be a high point, to me it is one of the most accomplished albums of all time, and a wonderful listen every time. As you noted, the abstractions are of the kind that draw you in , as opposed to alienating you, and are soothing, comforting in their soundscapes.

    Bjork at the time said that this album was for the home, a sort of hymn to domestic situations. So you are quite on the money with your microcosm vs. macrocosm comments.

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