Born of the Napster era, Björk’s Vespertine might just be the first commercial D.I.Y. electronic album, a euphoric and wintery mix composed largely on the artist’s laptop and consciously crafted for our desktops. Despite her undeniable pop leanings, Björk has proven herself one of the most talented composers of our time (from the intricate arrangements of “Isobel” and “Bachelorette” to the dramatic storytelling of Selmasongs). Björk’s fourth solo effort, Vespertine, is no exception, elevating her artistry to a breathtaking level of sonic and lyrical sophistication.
Surely a result of new love, the album’s first single, “Hidden Place,” finds Björk basking in the esoteric hide-and-seek of burgeoning romance, an electronic choir of icy soprano cherubs resounding her hesitant bliss. Likewise, “Cocoon” offers a novel metaphor for the exchange of love, encased with minimalist puttering percussion and a restrained vocal: “A train of pearls, cabin by cabin/Is shot precisely across an ocean/From a mouth of a girl like me/To a boy.” Vespertine delicately traces the cycle of said relationship, from loss of personal identity and full possessive entrapment (“Pagan Poetry”) to obstinacy and subsequent embrace of unity (“Unison”): “I can obey all of your rules and still be: be.” Perhaps sparked by the darkness of her role in last year’s Dancer in the Dark, the chilling “An Echo A Stain” explores what seems to be love or death or, in all Björkian likelihood, both: “One of these days soon…Feel my breath on your neck/And your heart will race.”
While the sonically stormy Homogenic purged her rage and disharmony with worldly things (love, the physical body, etc.), Vespertine finds Björk nestled quietly within the resulting calm. She draws on Pooh’s passive Taoism on the healing “Undo” and “It’s Not Up to You” (“If you wake up and the day feels broken/Just lean into the crack”). Both tracks are spilled over with Björk’s typical sweeping string arrangements and a musique concrète percussion style a la Matthew Herbert (who not-so coincidentally lent his programming skills to “Hidden Place”). On “Heirloom,” Björk dreams up a fantastic New Age remedy for laryngitis: “I swallow warm glowing lights/My mother and son bake for me.” The midtempo decree is the fastest track on the entire album, yet barely paced to quicken our pulse. (The uptempo “Our Hands,” an outtake from the Vespertine recording sessions, has been relegated to B-side status and will be sorely missed here).
Elsewhere, the quirky “Sun in My Mouth” is the type of track that alienates (and/or sails over the heads of) steadfast critics of faery-conduits like Björk, Kate Bush and Tori Amos. Partly based on E.E. Cummings’s “Wade,” it’s an arduous task deciphering the song’s intended message: “I shall enter fingers of smooth mastery/With chasteness of seagulls.” Regardless, the album as a whole is further proof of that very mastery, lulling Björk’s distinct sound with the joys and pangs of domesticity. Simply put, Björk is nothing less than a sonic genius and Vespertine is nothing short of brilliance.