I guess if you haven’t seen Dancer in the Dark you may want to skip the next several sentences ; you may not, in fact, want to read the rest of this sentence if, for some reason, you’d like to sit down to watch the movie with a pristine unawareness of how unbearably and intensely sad it is. Though the musical numbers and Björk’s always wonderful singing leavened the wrenching, jackhammer-like misery of the film, they nonetheless contributed to it in some way, maybe even heightened it in another, inextricably tied as they are to the incredibly upsetting events of the storyline. In fact, let’s just say they made it worse, in the long run. Despite the fact that the more I think about the movie (I saw it last week, so I guess it could be old news to you ; I’m not up on things, really. Heck, I just now realized that the Drowning Pool lead singer’s head looks a lot like a pineapple) I realize how implausible and downright ridiculous its storyline—often, in the course of such thoughts, wishing that, since credibility was thrown to the wind about a half-hour in anyway, the dancing mailbox from “It’s Oh So Quiet” could’ve jumped in at the end and started drop- kicking evil executioner ass left and right—was, that only makes Lars Von Trier’s direction more ingenious, Björk’s acting even more effective.
Since Dancer’s companion album and even since Homogenic in 1997—almost as turbulent a record as Dancer is a film, albeit in a more subtle way, and one that I think carries far too much emotional resonance for a self-professed Godflesh and Big Black fan like me—we’ve been asking the question, what comes next ? And Vespertine has finally arrived, to what seems so far to be a somewhat underwhelmed critical response. Is it a letdown ? Despite its more hyped sonically drastic elements (children’s choir, harpist, wizard-like production from Matmos), there’s nothing senses-shatteringly definitive about the album, at least on first listen. But can you blame its creator ? I, for one, am quite ready for a pleasingly intimate and low-key affair. Vespertine, whose title evokes the peaceful stillness of late-autumn, pre-Daylight-Savings-Time evenings, is just that. Look no further than the first two tracks, “Hidden Place” (the most epic and expansive) and “Cocoon” : as a prolonged statement of intent and an introduction to the landscape Björk lays out on this album.
If not as bold as Homogenic—the music-box languor of “Cocoon,” which finds Björk at her breathiest and most childlike, is quite a distance from “Hunter”—the vocals and arrangements of the album are nonetheless striking in an entirely different way. After hearing endless derivations of the IDM-gone-pop formula (most notably in hip-hop) that the spartan, strings-and-beats Homogenic and its remixes perfected, then moved past, this record’s sonic palette is a breath of fresh air. Repeated listens reveal how delicate and nuanced it is : the multi-tracked vocals and gentle, shifting percussion of “Undo” ; the unaccompanied circular bell motif that propels “Frosti”, which yields to the lush, wordless chorus of “Aurora.” Despite charges of sameness that permeate the record’s second half—which is admittedly not as strong as its first third or perhaps as melodically memorable—it is clear that Björk has created this album with a clarity of purpose. I can’t help but think of it as a different sort of song sequence, not a cycle, but one that spreads out in several fascinating directions at once before returning to its essence. Maybe that is cryptic, but so is Vespertine. It is also, more often than anything else, pretty beautiful.
So, she’s done it again ; are you surprised ? I’m just anxious to hear what she has in store for us next time, and whether or not the music world at large will have caught up by then.