Home Read Classic Album Review: Björk | Vespertine

Classic Album Review: Björk | Vespertine

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This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


Trust Björk to send you scurrying for the damn dictionary.

In case your vocabulary is as sadly lacking as mine, vespertine, according to Oxford, refers to something that happens in the evening — chiefly the act of prayer, of course (even I have heard of vespers), but also the opening of flowers, the activities of animals, the appearance of Venus and the setting of other celestial bodies. So there you go. Now we’re all on the same page.

Of course, when eccentric art-pixie Björk is the one writing the book, the plot doesn’t often go the way you’d expect. Ever since her days fronting avant-popsters The Sugarcubes, right up to the string-driven darkness of her last full-length album Homogenic, Björk (whose last name is Gudmundsdóttir, which explains why she goes by Björk) has displayed a unique knack for being able to surprise, amuse and confound both her fans and critics simultaneously.

Of course, Vespertine isn’t like to amuse too many listeners. It may surprise a few. But mainly, it’s probably going to confound people. Because even for Björk, Vespertine is one weird-ass album — 55 minutes of quiet, intimate electronics, languid trip-hop and moody meditations on love and romance. Most of the cuts are set in a dreamscape netherworld, sparsely arranged around burbling, gurgling synthesizers, plink-plunk music boxes and sweetly dramatic string sections. There are no electric guitars (or at least none that you can hear). No drums save for the digital thumps and scratches of beatboxes. And certainly no likely hit singles — none of Vespertine’s dozen cuts even approaches the big-band pop dynamics of Oh It’s So Quiet or the sinister power of Army of Me. Truth be told, a lot of them make Radiohead’s Kid A sound commercial.

Which is not to say some of these songs aren’t accessible. Opener Hidden Place wobbles along to a bleeping melody, lethargic rhythm and angelic strings that lead into a hummable chorus; It’s Not Up to You’s glissando synthesizers and harps, dripping-water percussion and layered vocals are sweetly lulling; Sun in My Mouth swells with strings and melody straight out of a black-and-white Hollywood musical. But more often, like Kid A, these cuts can seem more like soundscapes than songs, eschewing typical verse-chorus arrangements and narrative structure, instead flowing along organically and slowly mutating as they go, leaving plenty of room for Björk’s melancholy, fallen-angel vocals and English-as-a-second-language singing style.

Despite how this sounds, Vespertine isn’t offputting. It’s just a tough nut to crack. It takes several listenings — preferably through headphones, without distractions — to notice the subtle differences between sounds and to appreciate its many shades and textures. Eventually, you start to realize that its challenging nature is one of its strongest assets; this isn’t some disposable teen-pop you’ll be sick of in a week. It’s a complex work of depth and subtlety on which Björk slowly, carefully emerges from her quirky persona like a flower slowly opening at sundown, or like Venus shining in the evening sky.

However you wanna define it, the title Vespertine fits this album like a glove.