Home Music Holy Hell Holy Hell! Vespertine Turns 20

Holy Hell! Vespertine Turns 20

After the breakup of The Sugarcubes, Björk’s released three fully fantastic albums that ran the stylistic gamut — 1993’s Debut, 1995’s Post, 1997’s Homogenic. None of these albums, on a sonic level, stick to a given theme, unafraid to do things like, say, open with the abrasive and masculine “Army of Me” and follow it up with the beautiful, soaring “Hyperballad.” These albums were sequenced extremely well, in defiance of the will of the album gods watching over her. By the time she got to Homogenic, her restlessness had begun to quietly dissipate, but only to a degree; the album was far more cohesive than the ones before it, full of dramatic strings (see: “Joga,” and — as can be seen on opener the still-flawless “Bachelorette,” the infectious existentialist banger “Alarm Call,” or the abrasive, chaotic “Pluto” — absolutely massive beats.

Homogenic was Björk’s first foray into her life-long journey through stripping away everything that made her the person who wrote “There’s More to Life Than This,” but it would take a lot more work than just that album to do it. Rather than returning to the album-every-other-year model she’d been favoring, she took four years off — from dedicated music-creation, that is. She starred in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, a grim-dark story about a woman fighting to save her child’s eyesight, only to be accused of murder and hanged for being a Communist. As you could probably guess by that description, Dancer in the Dark was a musical — and the role afforded her the ability to step out of herself for the songwriting process in a way that allowed her to simply write from an entirely different perspective for the length of seven songs.

Much to the chagrin of von Trier, though, she wasn’t able to keep herself away from her own work for long, and she began the process of creating her next album. And so 2001’s Vespertine showed itself as an antidote to everything in her life at that moment — not just the tense, vile relationship that von Trier fostered, but her relationship with her character in the film. She viewed the acting process as one of extroversion by its very nature, as it demanded that she lived in the spotlight. “I realized that I’d come to the end of the extrovert thing. I had to go home and search for myself again,” she told The Guardian when promoting Vespertine. The album, initially called Domestika, would present a world populated by beauty, tenderness, and intimacy — one of, of course, domestic bliss, non-coincidentally coinciding with her budding relationship with artist/director Matthew Barney.

In terms of sound, Vespertine is among her most idiosyncratic. She worked with a number of people — M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel of Matmos, Notwist programmer Martin Gretschmann, pop producer Guy Sigsworth, among others — but it’s important to know that though collaborative, this is a world that begins and ends with Björk. There are still beats and strings, but those beats feel more designed for everyday life; many of them, in fact, were created by recording and manipulating recordings of common objects around her house, like the crack of ice or the shuffling of cards, or in the case of “Pagan Poetry,” a plexiglass music box. Knowing this doesn’t necessarily enhance the experience of listening to Vespertine, but this is because its construction doesn’t require you to know how every little detail was created to enjoy it — in fact, for the first time in her career, the music is intended to be something that you can comfortably, and blissfully, exist within. There are very few moments that resemble the heavy beats from before — “Pagan Poetry” and “An Echo, a Stain” come close, but even these still feel like they were drawn from an entirely feminine spring, their roughest edges wrapped in strings and a choir of herself.

This fact alone is what makes us come back to Vespertine, time and time again. Stripped of the bombast that characterized so much of her music, we get an album that feels natural and vaguely psychedelic, full of microbeats and sounds begging to be heard in living rooms and — if you must — small concert halls with unbeatable acoustics. Opener “Hidden Place” speaks to the frustrations of the everyday and a desire to escape: “I’m so close to tears/ And so close to/ Simply calling you up/ And simply suggesting/ We go to that hidden place,” she sings, and as the last line hits, the quietly churning beats around her ascend to match her voice. “Hidden Place” feels like a mission statement of sorts for Vespertine, the titular place being that which these songs exist within, as though she’s gently ushering you into that world. She does it because she trusts us to be in it with her, and trusts that we won’t sully the intimacy and sanctity of these spaces — in other words, “Keep it in the hidden place.” All she asks is that you give yourself, totally, to that world.

“Cocoon,” then, doubles down and asks you to do something slightly different: it asks you to comfortably sit within deeply intimate lyrics. “Cocoon” is, ostensibly, about the quiet delights that come from a new relationship — and, well, sex. “Who would have known/ That a boy like him/ Would have entered me lightly/ Restoring my blisses?” she sings as the song begins, her voice creaking as she tries to gently climb over the song’s quiet beats. If you think that line is too direct, wait until you get to this one: “He slides inside/ Half awake, half asleep/ We faint back/ Into sleephood/ When I wake up/ The second time/ In his arms/ Gorgeousness/ He’s still inside me.” It’s difficult to sing about sex in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed, and if this stanza had been present on any of her work before it, it might have — though she’s no stranger to singing about what she once called “Big Time Sensuality.” And yet here, it feels like we’re peering in on moments of love and human connection that we don’t get to see enough in music.

If you can get comfortable with Björk describing the wonder of being sleepily fucked by Matthew Barney, the remainder of Vespertine is going to be a breeze — and, honestly, odd moments like those simply add to how easy it is to love the naked openness of the album. The levels of intimacy within Vespertine are, frankly, difficult to dissect. 20 years on, the album has wormed its way into a lot of hearts with the messages it promotes. Repeated phrases present themselves as mantras for the soft-skinned: “It’s not up to you,” “Keep it in the hidden place,” “It’s not meant to be a strife/ It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill,” “I never thought I would compromise.” Each of these also center around a quiet battle of self that exists at Vespertine’s core: one where independence gives way to the presence of another — “It’s Not Up to You” and “Pagan Poetry” sum this up wonderfully with lines like “I can decide what I give/ But it’s not up to me what I get given” and “I’m going to keep me all to myself/ But he makes me want to hand myself over.” These moments of struggle and acceptance make the intimacy surrounding them feel more like they’ve been earned, rather than simply handed over.

What helps to elevate the strength of Vespertine is that, for all of the interpersonal intimacy that exists within the album, the most important relationship within it is that with herself. Many of these songs are about herself in relation to her lover, but these are also songs about self-actualization and learning to sit with your own power. She doesn’t “hand herself over,” because she feels like she’s actually being made to do so — she does so from a place of knowing that doing so will not result in losing herself. Songs like “Sun in My Mouth” and “Heirloom” aren’t even really about a lover, but about self-pleasure and how others make us complete, respectively. “I have a recurrent dream/ Every time I lose my voice/ I swallow little glowing lights/ My mother and son baked for me,” she sings on “Heirloom,” providing a gentle message of being restored to wholeness by family.

This is, perhaps, why Vespertine has endured in a way that other albums by Björk — and other albums of the era in general — have not. Nobody could express these things quite like her, but the things she’s singing about are entirely universal — and everyone can benefit from the lessons learned throughout it. Vespertine was fairly instantly embraced by her fanbase and the music community at large, and it’s not really all that shocking, as it was designed to be easy to let yourself sink into. There are still moments of rare beauty waiting to be uncovered in these songs, and more than any of her records before (and more than almost any album since), new moments of beauty can be uncovered even after 20 years with it — like the heartbeat warble of the beat in “An Echo, a Stain,” the quasi-samba beat of “Heirloom,” the gentle choral build of “Undo.” To date, Björk hasn’t made an album that matches what she tapped into with Vespertine, and like many artists, she did it by presenting the most vulnerable version of herself. And unlike her other album of naked vulnerability — 2015’s Vulnicura, which centers around the dissolution of her relationship with Matthew Barney — this glimpse into her heart and soul feels totally effortless. After all, as we are reminded throughout “Undo,” “It’s not meant to be a struggle uphill.”

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