It's tempting to say that after Homogenic, there was no direction but down. Vespertine is the settling of the previous record's tectonics: the angry beats Björk made with Mark Bell are made microscopic with the assistance of IDM artists like Matmos, Matthew Herbert and Thomas Knak. The orchestral lushness remains; indeed, this album boasts the most romantic treatments in her catalog. Thematically, this is a domestic work about, as Björk sighs at midway point "Aurora, " the "utter mundane". "Vespertine," literally, refers to eveningtime, and while Wikipedia quotes her as saying "Vespertine is little insects rising from the ashes," it could also refer to the time to reflect on the day's labors (or lack of same). "How do I master the perfect day?" she asks on "It's Not Up to You," "Six glasses of water/Seven phone calls." (It's worth noting, for the hell of it, that the brief bassline sounds eerily like Michael Ivins' work on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.) The six-minute "Unison" closes on a slightly treacly note (calls to "unite" usually end up that way), but still offers a cheeky self-portrait of the singer as a bearded, pipe-smoking hermit, and offers the line "I never thought I would compromise" as contented clarity.
To complement to her puttering beats, Björk spends much of the album at an intimate volume -- parceling out her phrases deliberately -- turning the grandiosity over to a new element: choirs. In theory, the choral arrangements are well-suited to the twilight feel, but they're turned to so often it threatens the balance of the record. If the Harmony Korine co-write "Harm of Will" is, as it's often claimed, about Will Oldham -- and the stilted syntax and skeezy sexuality would seem to indicate as much -- then the choral treatment pushes the track into the realm of high comedy. (More effective is the chorus of Björks that creak out "she loves him" on the buzzy, pulsing "Pagan Poetry".) There's something similarly heavy-handed about the use of music box, which appears on three straight tracks, including the superfluous solo instrumental "Frosti".
Regardless, the record is on the whole more pretty than precious, and the turn from the controlled chaos of Homogenic toward classical beauty was one that few musicians would dare to make. Neither would many artists literally wear their record's theme, as she did in the infamous, Marjan Pejoski-designed swan dress. (The dress has its own Wikipedia page.) Björk was
We like to talk about artists’ contradictory impulses, but with Björk, it’s more apt to talk about unities. In a career that’s nearing its fourth decade, she’s coupled many of the major dualities: intellect and body, auditory and visual, nature and technology. A map of her stylistic forays reads like a condensation of Rip It Up And Start Again: a very early folk start, then stints in post- and anarcho-punk outfits, followed by a series of idiosyncratic dance broadsides pasted onto pop’s center pole. She could have made a career of issuing albums in the vein of her first two: textured, au courant electronic-pop. Instead, she invested her capital into a series of ambitious, sprawling sonic expeditions.
Björk is frequently described as a “pop star,” which makes sense as component concepts. She’s placed 20 singles in the top 40 of the enviably omnivorous UK charts. No one has used the medium of short-form music videos to display so much wonder; in doing so, she collaborated with a staggering number of film, design, and fashion heavies: Michel Gondry, Sophie Muller, Chris Cunningham, Alexander McQueen, Eiko Ishiokam, Spike Jonze — even Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi. She’s sold millions of records, has a legion of dedicated fans, and the financial freedom to attempt nearly every project she can imagine. And still, she is not quite a pop star, at least not Stateside. To most Americans, the mention of her name conjures visions of swans and assault charges. She can headline Bonnaroo — as she is doing this year, alongside Paul McCartney, Mumford & Sons, and Tom Petty — but she’s never placed a single higher than No. 84 on the Hot 100.
Still, Björk exists in that rarified air of commercial success, critical adoration, and creative freedom. She’s a saint in the indie-rock community — an amusing happenstance, considering the major-label resources that have been at her disposal since her Sugarcubes days, to say nothing of the genres (electronic, dance-pop, jazz) she investigated. But the reason she’s beloved are obvious: She has made a career out of succeeding on her own terms, ever since her Crass-associated days with KUKL. The stereotype of her as an aloof Icelandic sprite may persist, but Björk remains a restless, collaborative artist, capable of effortlessly expressing her humanity through whatever raw material interests her. Discussing Kate Winslet’s performance in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (directed by frequent collaborator Gondry), Björk noted to the Guardian’s Liz Hoggard that “[u]sually when you see females in movies, they feel like they have these metallic structures around them, they are caged in by male energy. But she could be at her full volume without restrictions.” And so it has been for Björk in a career that shows no sign of creative regression.
What follows is a ranking of Björk’s seven studio albums, with her soundtracks for Lars von Trier and Matthew Barney omitted. Let the music-video ranking debate commence in the comments. Start the Countdown here.