Most Americans who’ve heard of Björk think of her in one of two ways : Either she’s a trivia answer that needs only half a question (“Which Icelandic pop star blah blah blah ?”), or she’s that freaky, cheekbony chick who wore a stuffed swan to the Oscars. To those in the know, however, she is—as a friend of mine once argued—“the coolest person in the world.” My friend actually traveled to Iceland last year and, though he won’t quite admit it, I swear it was solely in hopes of steeping himself in the essence of Björk.
Born in 1965 in Reykjavik, Björk Guðmundsdóttir gained world fame in the ’80s when she helped form the Sugarcubes—a college-rock fave in the States. Amid the ‘Cubes jangly sound, Björk’s unforgettable voice growled, shrieked, and laughed through her lyrics. She sang in English with a jagged Icelandic accent, and her pronunciations were ... unpredictable. Her pixy smile, little-girl hairdos, and bizarre fashion choices edged into the realm of the freakish. In the ’90s, Björk successfully went solo, and then last year she acted in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. The movie was flawed, but Björk was great, and the high points were musical numbers written by her for the film. When she performed at the Oscars, though, few remembered her lovely song. Everyone remembered the swan around her neck.
There’s a giant swan on the cover of Vespertine, Björk’s newest album (out last week), and Björk once again sports the swan dress in all her photos. I’m unable to suss out the waterfowl semiotics at play here, but I did notice that Björk.com has line-drawings of a duck. As for the album title, “vespertine” means crepuscular—blossoming at dusk, like vesper prayers. In contrast to the bombast of earlier Björk tunes, Vespertine is a dusky, twilight creation. It’s electronic music, but no one will dance to it. It made me want to curl up in an egg chair, pull a few mellow tokes, and work on my macrame. With songs titled “Hidden Place” and “Cocoon,” it’s a moody, quiet record—not for parties, and God bless that. The world could use a few albums designed for actual listening.
“Hidden Place,” the first track and single, contains Vespertine’s main elements : spare verses focused on introversion and quietude ; intricate, scratchy beats based on syncopated sound effects ; and a lush chorus backed by a full vocal choir. This quiet-verse/lush-chorus combo is old hat for Björk (taken to cartooonish extremes on “It’s Oh So Quiet,” from 1995’s Post). She must love to show off her astonishing dynamic range. Listen to her sing-breathe-whisper through Track 2, “Cocoon” ; she’s actually at her best either barely murmuring or full-out yelling, and she may be the most stylized vocalist in music today.
On “Human Behavior,” her early solo hit, tympani sounded out the creepy bassline, and Björk has always favored unexpected instrumentation. On Vespertine, harps pluck ; choreographed music boxes plink in time ; an Inuit choir from Greenland sings on several tracks. And collaborators include beatmakers Matmos and film-weirdo Harmony Korine (Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy, the screenplay for Kids). Working with only the cuttingest-edge scenesters in the studio and on her videos is in part what gives Björk her aura. She and Korine do share a certain unsettling vibe.
Of course, the album’s not perfect—it slogs down toward the end. Several songs are solely atmosphere and lack definition or hooks. The beat on “Heirloom” sounds like a Casio synthesizer. Several tracks (“An Echo, a Stain” ; “Sun in My Mouth”) just never get going and never pay off.
But Björk pulls it together in time for a strong finish. “Harm of Will” and “Unison”—the last two songs on the album—are perfect examples of what’s wrong and right about Vespertine. “Harm of Will,” co-written with Harmony Korine, is an absolute mess. No melody, no hook, no beat, no lyric depth. I’m down with minimalism and all, but you’ve got to give me something to listen to other than (clearly Korine-inspired) pretentiousness like “I leave her without pith or feel/ And leave her be/ Leave it be for he controls what there’ll be.” Yet one song later, on “Unison,” the album finds its clearest, best expression. An infectious synth hook weaves through catchy verses. The chorus, enormous, full of harps and choirs, seems to sweep the whole record before it up into itself. It’s a fantastic song, alone worth the price of admission.
In summation : Atmospheric equals good ; boring equals bad. Vespertine is mostly not boring and often quite beautiful. Even in her weakest moments, Björk’s always wildly original, which is saying a lot these days. When she puts it all together, she’s transcendent.