If anyone was in any doubt at all about Björk’s success as one of the planet’s most popular and inventive stars then let me remind them of a few facts. Not content with a career in The Sugarcubes, Björk went solo in 1993 and released to an unsuspecting public three fabulously weird albums – Debut, Post and Homogenic. Then she teamed up with director Lars von Trier to star in his film Dancer In The Dark, walking off with the Cannes award for best actress while she was at it. Her soundtrack album for the film, Selmasongs, featured Thom Yorke – and it wasn’t the first time by any means she’d appeared on a soundtrack recording, having recorded Amphibian for the Being John Malkovich record.
Now she’s back with Vespertine. The spine of the CD is entirely white, while the rest of the sleeve features innovative photography and artwork, preparing the listener before they even hear the album for something very special.
The first track of the album is the single, Hidden Place, which features a distant soprano section and strings over the top of a warm, intimate melody; it is reminiscent of Homogenic opener The Hunter, although the beats are not so central this time round.
This could be said about much of Vespertine, for despite the involvement of Matmos and Console, the strings and the choir, together with wonderful instrumentation from a harp and twinkly percussive instruments, define the mood.
Some of the vocals are so tender and fragile. On Undo, Björk sounds like she’s almost crying, while the beats and instrumentation at the start sound not unlike recent Radiohead material, her vocals given a Godrich-esque lack of echo. Echo is back in spades towards the end as the choir appears again.
For a vocalist, including an entirely instrumental track might be seen as daring, but Frosti sounds like standing in a completely featureless place as tiny snowflakes land on you. It is beautiful. Pagan Poetry, which precedes it, sets the mood nicely, all twinkles, plucks and dramatic cymbal samples. Reciting the mantra “she loves him, she loves him” over and over again, the choir again provide a perfect backdrop for Björk’s other-worldly vocal style.
Aurora has the twinkly synths again, over a rhythm which sounds like someone walking through snow. The beats are typically disjointed as Björk wails over the top of them and breaks the hearts of listeners everywhere.
An Echo A Stain needs to be heard several times to appreciate and demands close attention to the quite fascinating lyrics. Sun In My Mouth continues the dream-like atmosphere into echos with glockenspiel and strings, before Heirloom (borrowed from Console) offers something of a beat and bassline to almost start dancing to. Harm of Will returns us to atmospherics and beatlessness again. Unison picks up where Heart of Will leaves off – but then all sorts of odd noises suddenly pull together to offer a beat. “I thrive best hermit style,” she says, “but I can’t do this without you.” An essential line to understanding the psyche of this extraordinary lady. While you’re listening to the beat build, the choir and the strings have returned almost without you noticing and suddenly there is a wonderful crescendo of classical and jungle influences and we know we are in the presence of greatness.
Vespertine is a romantic, atmospheric album – and it won’t be something you’ll hear in nightclubs. It sounds like Björk has grown up, however child-like the glockenspiels sound; while that would be a pity, it is also fascinating for anyone who loves her music. She is a legend in her time.