CLASSIC REVIEW: Björk, Vespertine
Updated: Jan 9, 2022
Björk was influential in ways that are sometimes difficult to properly quantify. On a surface level, the fusions of trip-hop drums and soaring strings that comprised her production went on to inspire modern pop icons and soundtracks to film alike. Billie Eilish’s theme to the new James Bond film No Time To Die, for example, follows the Björkprint to a tee. Not to mention Björk's pop culture contributions, could we have really had meat dress Lady Gaga without first having swan Björk? Regardless, she didn’t get handed legacy status from a couple of silly outfits or production tricks. She earned her spot as one of the GOATs by creatively metamorphosing over a nearly 30-year solo career. Skipping over Debut, her path from the buffet of '90s styles on Post to the master synthezation of style of Homogenic to the personal diaries of Vespertine is one that still paves the way for new artists. She seized that formula quicker than any other artist before her besides Prince -- and in the process made labels change their strategies.
It feels like such a logical trajectory to get to Vespertine, where she lets the listener in on her actual life. While her first few albums fused pop sensibilities with epic scope (see “Hyperballad”), her fourth seeks to scale back maximalism in favor of cloud-like softness. This is the part in the review where I have to say my research for this record is zero. While I usually like to heavily research before writing about classics, this time around I don’t have a lot of time. However, as I suspected, it only took me to the end of the first listen to be able to distinguish this as an A. I think it is honestly really fitting that I am too busy to properly look into this record, it’s simplicity and honest lyricism speaks for itself, no YouTube interviews or scanned magazine articles required.
When I reviewed Homogenic, I listened to it from 12-5pm, reminiscent of the amount of effort Bjork went through to get that cover done perfectly. On Vespertine, all she did was lay next to a pool and drape a swan over her, it probably took 30 minutes. The casualness of this album is actually more friendly to casual listening than her other records in my opinion. Also, there is a clear narrowing from Homogenic that occurs, because the strings, IDM subtleties and trip-hop drums are still present but just less in your face. On “An Echo, A Stain”, the harps and violins fade in and out of the beat stealthily; by the time you realize they’re present, the moment has already passed. While the visual for “It’s Oh So Quiet” saw her in the middle of Los Angeles, this album sonically feels like it was recorded deep in the Icelandic countryside. On “Cocoon”, no one is around her for miles, not even a pin can be heard in the background. No one, besides whoever she is in a relationship with on this record.
I was warned going into this that this was Björk’s “horny album”, and it does not disappoint in that department. When she says “Through the mouth of a girl like me/To a boy” at the end of “Cocoon” she is moaning and can barely get the sentences out. Throughout the record, this breathiness and explicitly of phrasing continues to varying degrees, getting deeply intense whenever she sings about sex itself. While “It’s Not Up To You” has a more general message of being optimistic about the randomness of life, “Sun In My Mouth” feels like another passionate moment. The way the instrumentation builds on this track and the other sensual tracks simulates the feeling of a climax or just cuddling in bed for hours while the sun comes through the windows. It all feels hazy enough that time flies by, but there are specific landmarks in the clouded memories. Even on more obscure tracks, Bjork throws in subtle nods back to sex, like what exactly does she mean by “Warm glowing oil/Into my wide open throat”. Maybe I’m overthinking, but that’s what subliminals are supposed to make you do. Björk is nothing if not subliminal, constantly shifting perspective like a dream.
Maybe memes about Vespertine are just too efficient at oversimplifying, but while this album is definitely very sexually explicit, it has more to offer than that. The aforementioned “It’s Not Up To You” feels more like a personal revelation than something found with another person. After all, she spent the majority of career up to that point raising her child on her own, traveling to America by herself and going on television as a prominent solo artist. She just finds it more fruitful to sing about a joining of bodies, as in the mystical “Pagan Poetry”. I love all the hints towards secretive meeting on this track and “Hidden Place”, it all feels so cramped in one space. Lyrically, it’s as if this binding is forming a new religion, “Pagan poetry!” she screams out over plinky strings. The wonderful closure “Unison” seems to really capture this whole concept the best, with a warped and screwy instrumental to leave us with something to remember. “I never thought I would compromise” she sings over and over again over rising symphonic sound.
To conclude my frantic, jumbled thoughts on Vespertine, I’d like to rank it along with the releases that came before it. Debut is obviously the least entertaining. While it’s certainly not bad, there are at three or more albums released in 2021 that I think beat it out. Vespertine has to be next, although it is a perfect and more subtle record than its predecessors, it’s not nearly as stunning. It is her most mature by far, but not the most interesting. Post comes next simply due to the amount of absolute bangers there are on that one. “Hyperballad”, “It’s Oh So Quiet”, “Army of Me” and “I Miss You” are just a few that stand out to me in the current moment. Bjork was on top of the cultural zeitgeist at that moment and for good reason. However, her style was truly refined to a fine point on Homogenic, which might be my favorite album of all time. It combined her Icelandic heritage with her love for everything electronic in such a meaningful way. The deep amount of effort and trauma that it took to get to that point was astounding, but she came out on the other side with a groundbreaking release. More Björk reviews to come in the future...