Björk’s new album ‘Vespertine’ is plodding but gorgeous

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 août 2001

Nothing says “winter’s coming” quite like new music from Björk.

The Icelandic pop iconoclast has devoted her whole career to understanding, if not overcoming, the deep freeze. The cold is a primary character in the songs of her new “Vespertine,” and informs her sonic signature—the eerily pristine, near-barren instrumental landscapes ; the icepick words ; the overcompensating hot breath of her voice.

Where she’s from, “chill” isn’t a casual word. It’s what one must constantly overcome. It hovers over everything Björk has done, the metaphorical “wintry mix” that threatens to interrupt communication, put the lights out, force isolation. Others, most notably Radiohead, have scribbled verse after verse addressing technological alienation and its by-products. All Björk has to do is remember her Reykjavík youth to connect that lonesome feeling to a sound—hollow and whooshing, distant and desperate, Morse Code coursing over frozen wires.

Björk’s peculiar speciality might be described as a heroic rendering of barrenness, a matrix of strings, electronic percussion and voice that evokes complex emotional hues without stating them explicitly. That’s quite a feat in these narrative-happy times, and it has made Björk’s solo recordings, particularly 1995’s “Post” and 1997’s “Homogenic,” among the most dissected and worshipped albums in recent pop history.

Artists from all corners—the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, programmer BT—follow her work closely. And though the 35-year-old singer, who now lives in London, has yet to sell in massive quantities, she’s become an influential thinker whose every stylistic foray, even the most whimsical, has a ripple effect.

In the calming, contemplative songs of “Vespertine” (Elektra, 3 stars), to be released on Tuesday (Aug. 28), Björk can once again be heard chipping away at the soul’s ice, harpooning every stray thought for clues to the great mysteries. “How do I master the perfect day ?” she wonders warily as an electronic lullabye of clicks and thrumps plays behind her. “Six glasses of water ? Seven phone calls ?”

She wants answers. And she will sit, bundled in a hypnotized trance, until she gets them. Her new works are more forthright, less overtly edgy, than previous efforts. They’re nocturnal expeditions in search of elusive union, new-agey voyages in which the one-time punk elf chases down a little sexual healing. Where she was once committed to exacting revenge, in a song such as Post’s “Army of Me,” Björk has now turned fully, almost scarifyingly, inward. Her communication is a series of heavy sighs, grand pauses and undulating, broken-apart syllables that sometimes add up to words. Through these devices she strives for a psychic thaw, celebrating home as sanctuary, rhapsodizing over the electricity of touch, describing an intimate encounter (in “Cocoon”) in ways that are both explicit and bracingly beautiful.

Björk apparently spends lots of time lost in her thoughts, and on the most accessible songs here she uses overdubbed lead vocals to conjure deep, sometimes chiding, internal conversations. “It’s Not Up to You” has a buoyant, processional feel, and a bright chorus in which the title line is repeated like a zen koan. The message—don’t push, let things happen—comes through multiple channels : One Björk whispers, another cries out loud, and still another slides around, all jazz-diva like, making surrender sound seductive.

The chorale tactic produces mixed results. Though used to stunning effect on “Undo,” one of several songs built around a church choir that sounds as though it’s ascending heavenward, it mucks up equally promising songs. The direct, intentionally spare declarations of “Pagan Poetry,” for example, mushroom into a garish movie-musical finale : The refrain begins with Björk repeating the phrase “I love him,” and just when things are winding down, along comes a choir to echo her with a taunting “She loves him.” By the time it’s over, you half expect the cast to join hands and bust into “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”

It seems the Björk who twirled through “Dancer in the Dark” last year isn’t ready to let go of the emotionally loaded exposition that made the film’s soundtrack, “Selmasongs,” such tough sledding. She’s out there on the tundra, staging a one-woman “West Side Story” in a swan get-up, working too hard to reconcile the disciplined, streamlined atmospheres of her songs with the warm goo of her lyrics. The result, on “Heirloom” and “An Echo a Stain,” is an odd disconnect : The music is all understated sophistication, the words lifted, unexpurgated, from a 10th grader’s heartbreak journal.

There’s another problem with “Vespertine” : It moves glacially. Sometimes the ornate rubatos are completely absorbing, as on the frail, snaking line of “Undo.” But just as often, Björk’s willful artiness takes over, turning a tense sketch such as “An Echo a Stain” into an indulgent, overlong let’s-ponder-this episode. It’s great that she wants to stretch her melodies to their outer limits, but sometimes an old- fashioned backbeat can help.

Even in its plodding moments, “Vespertine” is gorgeous, an enveloping Sensurround of colors and textures and impressions. Its reveries succeed not on the strength of volume or outrage, but because they start from stillness, and demand little.

They seep under your skin. They sharpen the senses as they make all kinds of internal corrections for the lack of warmth, leaving behind a few truly memorable songs as well as scattered affirmations, strategies for dealing with the world, dislocated flashes of insight—and, underneath that, the faintest sense of dread at the inevitable. You hear her bray and you know : Time to check the antifreeze.

publié dans The Philadelphia Inquirer