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As Clear and Beautiful as Crystal ...,
This review is from: Vespertine (Audio CD)
Whether she liked it or not, "Dancer In The Dark" had cemented Björk’s place in pop culture as a pioneer of the utmost order, as well as leading to the most questionable choice of dress in a singer’s career ever with the infamous “swan” draped over her shoulders. After collecting accolades for both her music and her acting (among them two Golden Globe nominations and another nod for the Best Song Oscar), it would have been assumed by many that Björk would have come out firing on all cylinders with her next LP. Björk’s mind, however, humbled by the success of "Dancer" and a newfound loving relationship with performance artist Matthew Barney, was on a different plane altogether. The result, "Vespertine", could easily be described as the stuff of dreams, featuring soundscapes and melodies unlike any to be found in her career.
The main difference between "Vespertine" and the albums that precede it lies directly in their environmental space. "Debut’s" pop music exemplified the best of early ‘90s UK dance, whilst "Post" saw Björk travelling the world with many an eclectic collaborator, swinging wildly from the urban metropolis to the tropical rainforest. "Homogenic" represented a return to her nativeland with its raw geology and sweeping romanticism, whilst "SelmaSongs" used sounds directly from the film set itself to spark the character of Selma’s musings into songs. "Vespertine" is very different because the environment explored here is Björk herself. Using the advances of Internet glitch-pop much like Radiohead did with "Kid A", Björk concocts epic pieces of music that beguilingly soar into the listener’s consciousness. As strings and choirs cascade around beats that remain little more than indistinct scuttles and scratches, moments are reached that frequently rank as the most beautiful in Björk’s career.
Björk’s classical influence is engaged more than ever here. Briefly touched upon in the "Post" and indulged in far more with "Homogenic", Björk and trusted arrangers Guy Sigsworth and Vince Mendoza (who worked their fabulous wiles on the arrangements for "SelmaSongs" also) supply moments that border on the ethereal, aided substantially by the choice of choirs and Zeena Parkins on a resplendently beautiful harp. Meanwhile, the programming is subtle in the extreme; for the more boisterous songs, bass lines can be discerned, but for the most part the minutiae of the beats themselves (taken from shuffling cards, crushed ice and heavy breathing, amongst others) don’t so much pin the song down rather allow them to breathe and give them texture. And they are all held together by Björk’s luminous vocal, which has really never sounded so assured and graceful.
Another gracenote of "Vespertine’s" is in the thematic strands that hold it together. Whereas "Debut" was sweet and mellow throughout with the odd dance break, "Post" was enjoyably all-over-the-place and "Homogenic" trudged malignantly through its destructive lava field, "Vespertine" manages to cover all aspects of Björk’s new world without repetition or a discernible through line. All of the songs are concerned with love and carnality, from blissful first encounters (“Hidden Place”) to whispered reassurances (“Undo”), from the inner sanctum of sexual harmony (“Cocoon”) to the ambivalent exercising of perfunctory lust (“Harm Of Will”). It is without doubt Björk’s most sexually explicit album, but inversely intimate rather than extrovertly porny and raunchy (the light to "The Teaches Of Peaches’s" dark, if you will). Her lyrics also suggest an evolution in content and character, highlights including “Unison” (an affectionate dig at Lars Von Trier) and “Pagan Poetry” (a celebration of an achingly secret love).
It must also rank as Björk’s most collaborative album, as well as her most referential. Working with the likes of Marius De Vries, Matthew Herbert, Matmos and Zeena Parkins, she also has lyrics from esteemed literary luminaries E.E. Cummings and Sarah Kane, not to mention a typically disturbing piece from filmmaker Harmony Korine. That all of the work coalesces into a whole is testament to Björk’s production skills, herself acting as sole producer on the majority of the songs on offer here. In a touching way, "Vespertine" has Björk come full circle from the sojourn she set out on with "Debut" in 1993 … "Vespertine" has the same amused, benevolent detachment of "Debut", but the knowledge and sage-like tone behind her voice and her soundscapes exhibit a maturity and poignancy that nestles the listener inside a glacial paradise. It’s like listening to iceberg’s melting away with love and warmth on a clear day and surely one of the most beautiful albums ever made. A shocking superlative, I know, but it really is that gorgeous …