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Bjork Returns with Music for Headphones

Bjork’s ‘Vespertine’ Presents a Compelling, Soothing Collection of Songs

By Fred Choi

The title of Bjork’s latest album, Vespertine, refers to vespers, which are serene evening prayers. Unlike her previously uninformative album titles, Debut, Post, and Homogenic, this album is directly influenced by its final title as well as its working title, Domestika, and includes a wide range of nocturnal images such as quiet, introspective evenings alongside a warm fire.

On first listen, fans might find themselves browsing through the tracks, searching for the standout hits like Homogenic’s gorgeous ballad “Joga” or the beautifully manic “Pluto.” Although there are definitely some quality tracks that are more overtly catchy (such as “Pagan Poetry” and “Heirloom”), many of the best tracks require several careful listens to be fully appreciated. Be forewarned: this is not the type of album one can listen to while checking e-mail or tooling. Like much of Bjork’s slower music, this album seems destined to be played through headphones in a dark, empty room after midnight.

The sound of Vespertine is a combination of Homogenic’s lush, electric feel, and the subdued, wistful character of such songs as “Scatterheart” from Selmasongs, the soundtrack to the movie Dancer in the Dark. As on Homogenic, Bjork limited herself to a small palette of sounds in order to concentrate on the craft of songwriting. This self-imposed rigor inspired her most cohesive album yet.

As usual, Bjork resourcefully uses the skills of her carefully chosen collaborators to define the album’s sound. The starry sounds of Zeena Parkins’ harp, the airy vocals of a backing choir, the light chimes of long-time collaborator Guy Sigsworth’s celeste and clavichord, and the creaky noises and bug sounds of the San Francisco electronic duo Matmos all add to the atmosphere generated by Vespertine.

The album’s songs explore such comparisons as ecstatic bonds versus troubled relationships, familial love versus physical desire, and quiet solitude versus startlingly explicit intimacy (as in the gently erotic song, “Cocoon”). Because of the continuity in sound, ambience, and story from track to track, it would not be facetious to comment that this album seems even more homogenic than Homogenic.

Vespertine also features three of Bjork’s most intriguing collaborations yet. The gorgeously mellow “Sun in My Mouth” consists of text from a poem by e. e. cummings set to a fantastic melody which shows off Bjork’s amazing voice. “Frosti” is a twinkling two-minute track featuring music boxes. “Heirloom,” formerly known as “Crabcraft” on the album Rocket in the Pocket by the electronic group Console, benefits from the addition of a seamlessly melded vocal track. One of the definite highlights of the disc, “Heirloom” illustrates the way Bjork sets herself apart from other artists by honestly expressing straightforward emotions without wallowing in oversentimentality. Her lyrics for “Heirloom” exemplify how emotionally effective a well-thought, economical lyric can be: “Every time I feel a hoarseness / I swallow warm glowing lights / my mother and son baked for me.”

Despite the overall unity of the album, each track is quite distinct. Bjork carefully arranges her hooks and her song structures in such a way that the songs complement one another. For example, in “Pagan Poetry,” the hypnotic, repeated chanting of the simple line, “I love him,” is perfectly offset by wordless vocalizations of “aurora” and the floating, dreamy atmosphere evoked by “an echo a stain.” Bjork also provides variety in with her lyrics, as in “Unison”, easily one of the best tracks of the album. Here Bjork displays a playful side with her musings about the compromises that come with relationships: “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 ... I never thought I would compromise.”

All in all, Vespertine may not be the immediate favorite or the undisputed masterpiece of Bjork’s four albums, but listeners will be compelled to return to it again and again to revel in the Icelandic musician’s gorgeous night world.