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November Pick of the Month

Vespertine
Artist: Björk
Label: Elektra / 62653 / 2001 
Length: 12 tracks

When talking about Vespertine, Bjork claimed it to be about being at peace with herself. And considering the fiasco she underwent while filming Dancer In the Dark (Bjork'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 Bjork. 

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 Bjork'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 Bjork'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 Bjork's unique voice often end up trumping it. Strangely enough, Bjork'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 Bjork's lyrics; surrounded by the song's fluttering strings and electronics, they're more haunting and memorable than anything Bjork 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 Bjork 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 Bjork 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 toy box-like electronics. And as Bjork 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 new fallen 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. Bjork's voice is at its most transcendent, rising up to join the angelic choir and harp melodies circling above. And "Unison" closes the album on a glorious note as Bjork 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 satisfying. 

If you were to mention Bjork to most people, they'd probably register a blank stare. That, or bring up the swan dress. But Bjork 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 Bjork 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. 

Jason Morehead 10/15/2001
 
 

Jason Morehead is also the publisher of Opuszine, a webzine devoted to independent music and cult cinema.  All of his reviews can also be found at http://www.opuszine.com

 
 
 
 

 

   
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