catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 1 :: 2003.01.03 — 2003.01.16


The intimacy of Vespertine

As the winter grows cold and long, so grows the desire to snuggle up in blankets and sip hot chocolate by the fire. Bjork’s Vespertine is the one album that must be listened to at this time of the year, a narrative of song that does more than just talk about ice, snow, and warm hidden places, but is literally woven together of these things.

Bjork Gudmundsdottir is an established oddity on the pop scene. The Icelandic breakthrough star has been mystifying us for twenty-five years with her signature blend of throbbing beats, screeching vocals, and ingenious, liltingly accented poetry. A revolutionary in the world of pop music, she has crooned, quavered, and squealed her way through off-beat albums such as Post and Homogenic, and she mesmerized audiences in 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a movie that seemed written specifically for this elfish queen of fantasy.

Vespertine is Bjork’s best, most revolutionary album to date: through a seamless blend of technology and emotion, she has created an entirely new kind of pop music. In defiance to the slick, emotional distance found in much songwriting, Bjork draws us deep into her core through music that is almost unbearably intimate. With her we explore fear, loneliness, spirituality, sex, pressure, and the sheer ecstasy of loving and being loved.

Vespertine’s first song, “hidden place,” invites us into Bjork’s world, her winter sanctuary, coating our senses in globs of dripping candle wax, shuffling cards, crackling flame, shifting of bed sheets, and snow gently falling beyond the window. The artist uses playful language to weave a cocoon of closeness for the listener:

through the warmthest cord of care your love was sent to me
i’m not sure what to do with it or where to put it
i’ll keep it in a hidden place

Vespertine peeks wonderingly at this new, fragile love, whispering half-awake stories of shockingly pure sex, doubt, fear, pressure, her own darkest places, and the internal struggle to let go. In “it’s not up to you,” the beat breaks up, reflecting the unsettling tension in Bjork as she dialogues with herself:

i wake up and the day feels broken i tilt my head i’m trying to get an angle,
if you leave it alone it might just happen anyway
it’s not up to you well it never really was.

This is followed by a placid, rippling dream of sound in which Bjork’s dueling voices combine to whisper:

it’s not meant to be a strife
it’s not meant to be a struggle uphill
you’re trying too hard
surrender give yourself in

“pagan poetry” finds Bjork’s inner darkness and desire pulsing and writhing underneath a fluttering, gasping melody as she resists the desire to give herself over to newfound love. In one of the raw, honest moments on the album, she exalts:

i love him, i love him, i love him, i love him

But all the while, another voice murmurs:

this time i’m gonna keep me to myself
this time i’m gonna keep me all to myself

Deep silence is followed by an even further retreat into her solitary winter. Sampled music boxes create a childlike, crystalline ice world, broken only by the sound of feet shuffling in the snow. Bjork is our guide as we wander the dark forest, filling our mouths with snow, sucking in cold air, dreaming, singing, and finally, letting ourselves fall into the ecstasy of “unison”:

let’s unite tonight
we shouldn’t fight
embrace you tight
let’s unite tonight
let’s shhh

The music itself is a uniquely masterful blend of samples, found sounds, silence, and voice, a mix unlike any in pop, classical, rock, dance, or other genres. It is chamber music in the truest sense of the word: music for the smallest possible chamber; music that draws you, alone, into the space within your own head.

Joel Zuidhof, a composer and theater sound design student at Purdue University has been inspired by Bjork’s innovative method of composition. “She has a very free approach to technology,” says Zuidhof. “Most of Vespertine is cutting, pasting, and electronically mangling samples. I think her process of cutting and pasting is similar to the classical approach of writing notes and arranging them. It is a kind of composition process that isn’t based on improvisation like rock and roll, blues, and jazz are.”

Though Bjork has been criticized for not being “singable,” just try to remember more than a snippet of her music. She has an intuitive ability to organize the entirety of her album into a story that is understandable from the first listen. Slight pauses for breath, rambling stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and sweeping choral landscapes are woven together like a good blanket, and make sense at a deep, intimate level.

And this is Bjork’s ultimate goal: to make music that is important, that can unite the world at its center, and can change peoples’ lives. In an interview she goes so far to say that troubled nations are “exactly where you should play your music. … It reminds people that everyone’s core is similar.” She gives a shy smile. “At the end of the day I guess I’m sort of a naive person who wants everybody to be friends.”

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