Okay, I’m going to get to the Vespertine review in a minute here, but first, you NEED to go to YouTube and watch this RIGHT NOW. Yes, it’s a music video (for “Stonemilker”), but think of it like a music video done in Google Street View. Click and drag and watch what happens. It’s BLOWING MY MIND. I actually said “woah” out loud. Now THIS is the kind of quality music video I expect from Björk. Also worth watching are the music video for “Lionsong” and the “Family” moving album cover, both of which can be found on her official YouTube page.
AND there might be a bootlegged copy of of the “Black Lake” video from the MoMA exhibit that just ended floating around somewhere. *cough*cough* (No, I mean really bootlegged, like DVD-you-bought-in-a-back-alley-with-shadowy-figures-occasionally-walking-in-front-of-the-camera bootlegged.) (UPDATE: The official “BLack Lake” video from MoMA is now up!) Anyway, it’s GREAT to see she’s made a return to form with these videos. I’m really, really glad.
NOW, let’s get into Vespertine. Funny how I’m choosing to talk about it in June seeing as how it’s a very wintery-themed album (though it was released at the end of August). It’s got light and airy sounds, making use of such instruments as a harp, celesta, various strings, and a music box made out of glass. There’s even the sound of snow crunching in one track.
Thematically, the album is all about love and sex – and more love and more sex. That’s really it! At the time, it was her most intimate album – well, it’s also ABOUT intimacy. But it was incredibly personal endeavor. We’ll get into that during this review.
I’ve mentioned multiple times that the opening track “Hidden Place” is one of my all-time favorite Björk songs. It is one of my favorite opening tracks to any album. There’s something about the way that soft repetitive electric sound at the beginning pulses and washes over you. The choir that comes in at around 32 seconds brings it to another level. And when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it takes you to an even higher euphoric state of mind at about 50 seconds in when the beats, strings, vocals, and background melody all swell up together.
Of the theme of the track, Björk said:
‘Hidden Place’ is sort of about how two people can create a paradise just by uniting. You’ve got an emotional location that’s mutual. And it’s unbreakable. And obviously it’s make-believe. So, you could argue that it doesn’t exist because it’s invisible, but of course it does.
It certainly feels like a paradise, although one of a sexual nature. It’s pure, unbridled bliss. My favorite lyrics are “I’m so close to tears/And so close to/Simply calling you up” as well as “Now I have been slightly shy/And I can smell a pinch of hope/To almost have allowed/Once fingers to stroke.” I don’t know why, but these particular lines just get to me. Normally, I would say they get me in the gut, but, er…that’s not quite where they get me.
If the first track wasn’t blunt enough for you, well here, have “Cocoon.” (And, oh yeah, the video’s totally NSFW.)
Heavy-handed on the euphemism AND the literalism, the breathy vocals in “Cocoon” make it very clear that this is a post-coital track. The little glitchy beats are wonderful and a little eerie. The minimal sound really works for this song. I don’t know if it would have succeeded if it was as overwhelming as “Hidden Place.” This track is meant to be introspective in its bliss.
I feel like “It’s Not Up To You” wasn’t necessarily supposed to be about love or sex, but it’s difficult to read it any other way, at least for me (“Just lean into the crack”? I mean, come on). To me, it’s about that unknowing that exists when you’re not sure what kind of a relationship you’re in with a person. There seems to be chemistry, but there’s also this difficult balancing act in your head: Do you pretend like it’s nothing and risk missing an opportunity, or do you take a chance and risk blowing it all? You’re stuck in this limbo of not being able to read their frustratingly ambiguous signals. (Boy, have I been there.) I feel like this song really captures that pensive burning curiosity that runs itself back and forth across your brain and makes you into a nervous wreck. “Six glasses of water/Seven phone calls.”
So that makes “Undo” a pretty good follow up! It’s very meditative and calming right from the get-go: “It’s not meant to be a strife/It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill.” You just have to let your nerves go and go with the flow. This is not so much about sex and love as the others. Although I said it’s a good follow-up to “It’s Not Up To You” it could really apply to any situation in life that you’re overthinking/stressing out over. “Undo if you’re bleeding/Undo if you’re sweating/Undo if you’re crying/Undo.”
“Pagan Poetry” is probably the biggest standout track on this album. It’s the most passionate, the most emotional, and the most theatrical. And so is the music video, which, by the way, is even more NSFW and, besides that, definitely NOT for the squeamish when it comes to needles and piercings.
So…this video was banned by MTV, and not just for Björk being topless and having strings of pearls being sewn into her body. If you’re wondering what those weird blobby, blurry images are…well, it’s highly likely you’re seeing a Björk sex tape (watch again – do the way those blobs are moving look familiar now?). It’s not just all about nudity and needles though. Setting the music video aside, this song is about making yourself vulnerable (and, in a way, that’s exactly what the music video is capturing) as you head into a new relationship, even as you’re scared to do so because of the consequences that could result (as they may have in the past). This song is swarming with desperation and anxiety. It’s so important that the music drops out when Björk chants “I love him” over and over again.
There isn’t really anything to say about “Frosti,” the glass music box interlude, except that it’s BEAUTIFUL. If it didn’t cut off (because it fades into the next track), I could listen to it over and over again.
That next track would be “Aurora,” the most wintery track on this album (so it makes sense that it’s paired with “Frosti”). Themes of nature and love kind of blur together here. “A mountain shade/Suggests your shape.” She fills her mouth with snow to remind herself of her lover. It’s the best track about intimacy without being as heavy-handed about it. There’s something transcendental about it.
“An Echo, A Stain” brings a chill down my spine every time. It’s a sinister, dark song, based on a one-act play called Crave, which I know nothing about, except for the themes that I’ve gathered from its Wikipedia entry which include “rape, incest, pedophilia, anorexia, drug addiction, mental instability, murder, and suicide.” The musical themes of the album work perfectly with this song, being creepy and quiet. It’s meant to make you feel uneasy, and in that aspect, especially knowing what it’s based off of, it works.
The next song has lyrics taken straight from the e e cummings poem “I Will Wade Out” which, for those not familiar (I mean, I wasn’t) is purely about masturbation. It’s pretty obvious from the lyrics regardless. Also, the music works great as a euphemism here. It starts out with gentle, exploratory tones before slowly building up to a crescendo and follows with a blooming release before coming back down and ending with fuzzy, fading, echoed vocals. It may seem heavy-handed (no pun intended), but it’s also pretty clever!
“Heirloom” is another song about love, but a different kind of love – a familial kind. Its pensiveness reminds me of “It’s Not Up To You.” It’s a very introspective track and the most surreal, lyrically. It feels like maybe this was the best way Björk could describe the way her family forms her foundation and holds her up. A singer’s voice is their most important asset, and when they lose it, it can be easy for them to question their worth. And so one has only to look at who supports them and know that everything is going to be okay.
The song “Harm of Will” was co-written by Harmony Korine and is supposedly about Will Oldham, though I’m going to be honest here: I have no idea what that means. I mean, okay, the name of the track is basically made up of both of their names. But beyond that, I don’t have any clue what Will Oldham has to do with anything, much less who he is (someone’s going to be mad at me for that). But completely ignoring that, it’s another dark song with a sinister ending. There are two characters in this song: a man and a woman. Björk seems to go back and forth assuming the identities of these characters. It’s hard to tell which one at times. It’s a hauntingly beautiful and sad track. And, dammit, I wish I understood what it was about.
We end with a fantastic track, the best way to end this album: with a track called “Unison.” Okay, again, this is going to sound corny (for different reasons), but I really relate to the way she describes love here. “Born stubborn, me/Will always be/Before you count one, two, three/I will have grown my own private branch/Of this tree” and “I thrive best/Hermit style/With a beard and a pipe /And a parrot on each side/But now I can’t do this without you” especially. This is another track about vulnerability, but where “Pagan Poetry” was filled with distress and fear, this track is eager, enthusiastic, and a little bit flustered. The swelling orchestra and chorus just make my heart soar. I feel so happy and hopeful when I hear it. I don’t want it to end.
I don’t think I’ve said it before, but Vespertine is my favorite Björk album, and one of my favorite albums of all time. It’s one I would have to have if I was on a desert island or on a rocket ship headed to Mars. It’s definitely one I need to get on vinyl. It has my favorite sounds and it just means so much to me. I never get tired of listening to it.