Review Summary: Reflections on a classic: legacies sung and unsung
I don’t care for anniversary retrospectives. If we’re still listening to or discussing Classic X however many years down the line, chances are the reasons why will speak for themselves - and yet, somehow, Bjork’s Vespertine
is 20 years old today. Weird. Take that span as a measure of how long it’s been since Bjork released anything overwhelmingly worthwhile and it seems nigh indeterminable; tune into Vespertine
with a clear mind and it hasn’t aged a day. What’s up with that? The reasons it sounds phenomenal now are the same as they’ve always been; I doubt another ten or even twenty years will do much to change this. What I think has
changed - or, at least, congealed rather blandly- is a collective reticence to view it in a context beyond Bjork’s discography. Let’s start with that.
In some senses, I think it’s understandable to see this album parcelled into the wider phenomenon of Bjork is as Bjork does
. Gone are the days of her Oscars fashion attacks, her deja vu Simpsons cameos, her proto-ASMR television commentary, or even her surprise Death Grips collaborations. Come the year 2021, our Icelandic queen is more an entity unto herself than ever; as such, it’s never been so easy to forget how salient a part of pop culture she once was.
Away with that. Vespertine
is part of a story both bigger and, I’d argue, more valuable than its creator’s ongoing legacy of installations and wardrobe coups. Back in the early ‘00s, it was one of two great records that represented the advent of IDM into a mainstream-adjacent field (the other, of course, being Kid A
). Together, these albums ushered in the future of indietronica and digitally oriented art pop, revolutionising the kinds of atmospheres and creative processes that would be expected from artists of their respective platforms. Curiously, Vespertine
was very much yang to Kid A
’s yin, tender where that album was tense, emotionally forthcoming where it was dissociated, and sleekly crafted where it was anxiously experimental. It took glitch and made it soothing; it turned erotica into stately openness; it laid claim to some of the most traditionally insular styles of electronic and wore them as her most natural emotional conduits to date. None of these things are unique to Bjork, but hers is perhaps the most convincing and meticulous exploration of them you’ll hear on any record.
So how’d she do it? What puts Vespertine
ahead of the curve where its predecessors Post
had sat plump on top of its trajectory? It’s in part down to a style change, as Vespertine
saw her lay aside her maximalist trip-hop beats and focus almost entirely on the ambient pop we heard on the likes of “All Is Full of Love” and, especially, “Unravel”, tracks which I would argue owed the most to Bjork’s strongest suits and the least to the trends of the time. However, it’s first and foremost a question of craft: Bjork complemented this shift with a newfund laser-focus on the most refined nuances of texture and rhythm, for which the only real precedents within her work are “Headphones”, a mesmerising work of structural disintegration and “Hunter”, Homogenic
’s dark hybrid of an electronic-chamber pop opener. Those tracks are among her most restless, constantly escalating or de-escalating towards ever-ambiguous ends, disconcerting and mysterious but endlessly engaging.
, Bjork distilled that quality to its most minimal level, stripping out most of the drama and reinventing its mobility as something fragile and organic. If, say, “Hunter”’s dynamic complexity was the most mercurial moment in a psychological thriller, then Vespertine
’s is a gentle snapshot of the natural irregularities of human breathing. Unsurprisingly, this was not a simple sound to pin down, and Bjork required a fair bit of outside aid. She enlisted IDM duo Matmos and drew on their experience manipulating musique concrete to make original beats out of unconventional sources (the shuffle of cards; the cracking of ice), and constructed the album in conjunction with a small army of programmers and ProTools engineers. Where the ambient end of her work had once been the most straightforward, suddenly it was the most sophisticated, yet at the same time it was more personal than ever, sultry and romantic without reserve; intimate songwriting for intimate subject matter.
It all comes down to that intimacy. I think what makes it resonate so organically, so vitally
as such is evidenced less by the giddiness of its most exhilirated erotic peaks (“Pagan Poetry”, “Unison”) than by its wealth of subtle touches, each a single stroke of an unbroken caressing atmosphere. These are best studied through the minimalist cuts, “Cocoon” and “An Echo, A Stain”, the former almost embarrassing in its sexual explicitness and pervasive vulnerability, the latter drawing on Sarah Kane’s warped play Crave
to position desire and attraction as disconcerting, near-threatening forces. Both are masterclasses of nuanced understatement; “Cocoon” in the way its skittish beats play around Bjork’s vocals like individual pinpricks of sensuality building and dispersing in response to her delivery, “An Echo, A Stain” in the unpredictable shifts of its eerie string soundscape, each swell emerging at a different rate to the one before to convey the track’s lurking unease.
As arrangement choices go, these are exquisitely detailed and realised to perfection, and though they aren’t always presented as naked as on the two tracks in question, Vespertine
is steeped in a similar sense of intricacy. You can hear this on its (relatively) upscale tracks: consider how the opener “Hidden Place” shifts its narrative of anticipation over a deliberately glitching loop sample, building tension to the point of anxiety before swooning into its chorus with all the relief of a long-awaited first embrace behind closed doors. If that’s too obvious, take the disjointed beats and spangled keys that overlay one another like independent heartbeats on “Undo” until all rhythm tracks give way entirely to a breathless choral climax (uh, you know the kind). It’s the kind of smart layering that only seems ‘smart’ if you peer at it; it pairs with Bjork’s performance and the trajectories of the songs in question to scan as anything but effortlessly intuitive.
Both “Hidden Place” and “Undo” draw on a similar methodology to “Cocoon” and “An Echo, A Stain”, but Vespertine
is also deceptively versatile. “It’s Not Up To You”, for instance, is a more faithful take on chamber pop, “Unison” includes a choral sample of the relatively obscure liturgical piece “Viri Galilaei” by composer Patrick Gowers, while the album’s warmest track “Heirloom” slips deliriously in and out of a breakbeat, following the course of its dreamlike slur of a bassline. These elements fit so smoothly within the album’s wider palette that, listening to it for almost a straight decade, I’ve never before felt a need to parse them, and yet they make for an unlikely combination on paper. The limited precedents for [art-]pop artists borrowing from similar sources - Pizzicato Five come to mind - tend towards emphatic eclecticism and pastiche, yet Bjork’s combination is almost freakishly seamless.
It’s not hard to see what guides this: Vespertine
’s fusion of style and substance is virtually unrivalled by any album, whether in depth or in detail. Its aesthetic and arrangement are less vehicles for its steamy subject matter than they are perfect mirrors for it. The album’s form makes it easy to take this for granted, but consider this in contrast to a statement record such as FKA Twigs’ recent-ish release Magdalene
, which unpacked deeply personal themes across maximalist R&B and glitch gestures but invested so much in expressionist formalism that the nuances of its artist’s own voice and personality were left on the sidelines. On Vespertine
you’ll struggle to draw a line between the context of Bjork’s bare-skin lyricism and the manner or environment of their delivery - quite the feat if you recall how it verges on outright awkwardness if examined on paper. Just take “Cocoon” and that string of pearls...shot precisely/across an ocean
On that basis, it’s clear enough why Vespertine
has aged so well: it’s just too fully realised, too integral, too meticulously constructed and breathlessly personal to fall foul of any kind of weathering. The chamber pop and IDM that underpin are long since dated in and of themselves - just look at Matmos’ own contemporary material for a first glimpse at this - and the wave of so-called glitch pop artists that followed it across the ‘00s seem increasingly like a particularity of that decade. Cliched as it is, Bjork’s vision really does transcend the sum of its parts here, in a way she had never before achieved and will likely never again come close to. Her previous work was too conspicuously indebted to the trends of its time, while her later albums are largely often swallowed up by the novelty value of their vocabulary.
It’s all too easy to set it up as the final great triumph of Bjork’s career, but I think it’s much more attractive to consider that Vespertine
has a legacy of its own, at the head of a loose pop tradition of sorts that tentatively came into its own with its release. We saw this in the ‘00s as Tujiko Noriko took glitch-pop into more abstract territory with the aid of her deadpan humour and disregard for structural concerns; we were disarmed in the ‘10s as Macaroom came out of nowhere to rival the intricacy of its beats and glitches with a strikingly different set of tones and atmospheres; more recently, we were treated to radically digitalised, catatonically dissociated warping of its fundaments in the work of the UK-based Singaporean musician Yeule. This brand of forward-thinking ambient pop is Vespertine
’s legacy not out of concrete influence, but because it’s the greatest and oldest precedent for everything the style can do so remarkably well. It still
recurs as what feels like a contemporary point of comparison for fresh records, and if nothing else I think this speaks to its staying power as a masterpiece - for a masterpiece it is, and with the shadow of that word finally expunged, I have nothing more to add.