Vespertine by David Toop, 14 août 2001

Vespertine and vespers are revelatory words that encompass botany, zoology, astronomy, spirit and the rhythms of the universe : a flower opening in the evening, an animal that becomes active after sunset, evening prayer, Venus the evening star, setting and dusk. Poetic words of contradictory multiple allusions : to love, to hunt, to pray, to withdraw into contemplation, to open out as night closes in. "I thrive best, hermit style, with a beard and a pipe," Björk sings, with a barely audible laugh, on Vespertine. This is the album that follows SelmaSongs, last year’s soundtrack to Dancer In The Dark, and her last solo album, Homogenic.

Sitting in her London home, in early spring, she talks about this new and quite contradictory mood, a beautiful introspection that nests in privacy yet rejoices in openings. "The album’s very much about being alone in your house," she says, "in a very quiet sort of introverted mood and you whisper, you sort of improvise. Which is between me and myself."

There are songs on Vespertine that seem intensely private, like words of love, sensuality and confession shared in a space where the world is shut out for a moment. Isn’t it a contradiction, this public exposure of sheltered places and times ? "But I think that’s life, anyway," she responds. "Your grandmother calls ’cause she’s sick but you just put on a lipstick because you’re gonna go out and meet your boyfriend. You meet a dog that’s thrown up on the way and you have to juggle all those things and make them work. Even when you go to bed, if you did a good day you did a good juggle and then you have days that are crap because you just couldn’t.

I quite like music to have to deal with those things. Music like that is more real, rather than just isolate it from life. I think there’s a grain of cowardice there. But then again, just to contradict everything I’ve said, I was conscious for the first time in my life when I did this album to create a paradise. A cocoon. I’ve always been this punk who wants everything very real and very stark. This album is partly about creating a cocoon, almost like a paradise that you can escape to. Even though you know it’s not true. You couldn’t take this cocoon anywhere. It would burst in certain places. But you still believe in the right for it to exist, just because of the need for it for humans. That alone justifies it."

Björk’s engagingly complicated approach to music and life has reached a new point of maturity and independence with Vespertine. For Homogenic, released in 1997, she began to show signs of moving away from the collaborative approach of 1993’s Debut and 1995’s Post. "I love collaborations", she said in may 2000, just before the Cannes debut of Danish director Lars von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark, the controversial film in which Björk also starred. "My favourite is becoming the other half of someone. One day Tricky, the next day Evelyn Glennie. I’m still truthful to what I am but it’s the communication. You write a lot of tunes on your own. There’s a lot of solitude so when you collaborate you might as well go all the way."

But in the process of creating songs for the film, she had discovered a greater desire for self-determination, along with new possibilities to take her laptop to a mountain hut in Iceland and sculpt orchestras or dissect and rebuild her voice. "The next project, everything is to do with craftsmanship" she said at that time. "I’m gonna be having the discipline to sit down and do it myself." So Vespertine still features the work of some familiar collaborators such as Guy Sigsworth, Mark Bell, programmers Valgeir Sigurdsson and Marius de Vries, Dancer In the Dark arranger Vince Mendoza and mixer Mark ’Spike’ Stent, as well as the newer names of Matmos, Matthew Herbert, Bogdan Raczynski, Thomas Knak and harpist Zeena Parkins, but this is very definitely an album directed by Björk.

The way she describes it, the relationship is closer to the way things were in the 1970s, with the producer curating the creative input of a crew of supremely talented session players. "They would hear a lot of improvisations," she says, "and they would collect noises." As ever, she has a sensitive ear for who or what is the hottest noise : the ferociously detailed micro-rhythms of the San Francisco duo Matmos, or Thomas Knak of Opiate and Future 3. Despite a passing Oval sample or rhythm tracks constructed by teams that define state of the art beats, this is a collection of overpoweringly emotional songs, gorgeous melodies and exquisitely inventive arrangements. Immediately recognisable as the creation of Björk, Vespertine is a distinct progression in her own work, emphatic evidence that she is totally beyond comparison with anybody else in her field.

"Born stubborn, me, will always be," she sings. Björk Gudmundsdóttir was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1965, where she grew up in a communal household (though not a hippie commune, she’s keen to point out). Music was played 24 hours a day. "I remember a queue by the record player," she says. "The record would finish and you’d be ready to put another one on." At the age of five she was enrolled in music school where she studied flute and piano for ten years. Then at the age of eleven she made an album with the help of her mother and friends. A big hit in Iceland, the eponymously titled Björk featured only one song written by Björk herself, though she became an Icelandic celebrity on the strength of its success. "I felt a lot of guilt," she admits. "I promised myself that I would never front anything unless I was the one who did it."

So at the age of 13 she started forming punk bands. First came Exodus, then Tappi Tíkarrass, then K.U.K.L., a band that recorded two albums for the label run by the legendary UK anarchist band, Crass. "When I was a punk there was no such thing as Icelandic music," she says. "We had to invent it. Nobody even sung in Icelandic. Maybe now, the genius bands like Múm and Sigur Ros come up. I think it’s a second generation thing. It’s not such a big deal." That first period of invention included many influences from her peers, ranging from the compendious musical knowledge of Asmunder Jónsson, a radio DJ and musicologist who now runs the Bad Taste organisation in Iceland, and Sjón, poet, wit, dandy & experimentalist, whose discussions of surrealism with Einar Örn and Björk led to many antagonistic, drunken and inspiring arguments on the nature of art. "Being the only girl," says Björk, "it was my role to be a little punk. I was in a punk band with this long orange hair and no eyebrows. I’d confront the intellectuals, which is pretty brave because I didn’t even have the vocabulary. It wasn’t like we were fighting but it was basically instinct versus logic."

In 1987, Einar Örn, Siggi Baldursson and Björk formed a new band, called The Sugarcubes, with Thór Eldon, Fridrik Erlingsson, Einar Melax and Bragi Olafsson. From their first single, "Birthday", they were a band with unique qualities, combining a raw post-punk feel with touches of experimental sonority, affecting melodies and Björk’s extraordinary, exultant singing. The Sugarcubes put Icelandic music on the world map, with Björk’s personality, dress sense and vocal style tailor made for an increasingly faceless music scene in desperate need of strong, innovative and self-determined individuals.

By 1992, after 4 albums, The Sugarcubes were ready to split. Their last release - a remix project - reflected Björk’s growing involvement in the UK dance scene. Beginning a lengthy professional relationship with Graham Massey, she had recorded with 808 State, singing on two tracks on EX:EL, but also pursued her love of jazz by recording the Gling-Gló album with pianist Gudmundar Ingólfsson’s trio. Then Debut, released in July 1993, changed everything. Produced by Nellee Hooper, emerging as a leading producer after an apprenticeship in Bristol’s vibrantly eclectic hip-hop scene and massive success with Soul II Soul, and featuring the string arranging and tablas of Talvin Singh and brass arrangements by Björk and Oliver Lake, the album introduced Björk as one of the most unusual solo artists and distinctive vocalists to appear in years.

Since Debut, her work has always followed her heart. Early days in Reykjavik listening to her grandparents’ jazz collection, her mother’s rock records, her classical music education, the songs, sagas and poetry of Iceland, anarchist punk bands and the arguments about surrealism were all carried with her into the musical vibrancy of London’s stylistic, ethnic and artistic mix. Debut sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide and was followed in 1993 by Post, an even bigger success that added Graham Massey, Howie B and Tricky to Nellee Hooper’s production skills. After Post’s bigger beats, deeper sub-bass and the cartoonish big band outburst of "It’s Oh So Quiet", Homogenic, released in 1997, was more experimental in its contrasting textures, more bold in its intensity and structure.

In conversation, Björk speaks often about courage and cowardice, both of which figure large in the moral framework of her creative decisions. Characteristically, she has always pulled back from situations where celebrity or habit threatened to reduce her freedom, or she has expanded into areas of high risk where the potential for learning outweighed the possibility of losing credibility or commercial leverage. Her decision to act in Dancer In The Dark, for example, exposed her to vitriolic criticism from some film critics yet earned respect among those who recognised her need to move forward and take on new challenges. Her choice of collaborators over the years - fashion designers Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, photographers Nick Knight, Stephane Sednaoui and Nobuyoshi Araki, video director Chris Cunningham, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, remixers Dillinja, Funkstörung and Mika Vainio - is a reflection of this desire to work with artists at the cutting edge.

Vespertine is an adult album, full of childlike joy, sparkling with the fragile sounds of harp, celeste, clavichord and music box. "Sun In My Mouth" has a poem for its lyrics, one of a series of songs written in 1925 by American poet e. e. cummings. It comes as no surprise to find his words in a Björk album. His capacity to merge sensuality, passion, playfulness and universal wonder with fierce precision, uncompromising accessibility and unwavering experimentalism mirror Björk’s aspirations and achievements.

Vespertine crunches through the sound of snow, crackles with the sound of digital chatter, flutters with strange little voices that dart at the edge of perception, whispers in the fading light. At its heart is a big human heart. "I think pop music," says Björk, "folk music, just the music that humans make for humans to get through a day, everyday music as opposed to more serious music - for it to be all these things that we never see every day, like ukuleles, and make something magical is easy. But to use the noises that everybody is using every day - the remote control, the mobile, the Internet and fax machine - it’s not about wanting to be weird or something or avant-garde or any of that shit. It’s down to earth. It’s dealing with the porridge and cup of tea. Digital stuff is all around us anyway. Making a song out of that. I think it’s braver and more taking on the moment than other things. That was my little speech."

par David Toop publié dans Vespertine by David Toop



  • David Toop