So this is it. The great follow-up to Homogenic we’ve anticipated since that overcast late-September afternoon in 1997 when we first sat listening to the album for the first time, wondering what she might do next. Somehow, it doesn’t seem worth the wait.
Homogenic, still the most innovative and substantial release of Björk’s solo career, spilled over with rich melody and sybaritic imagery. Its dense, programmed percussion reflected IDM’s infancy (The Richard D. James Album being a frequent point of comparison), yet submerged it in brooding Russian strings buoyed by thumping bass hits and Björk’s urgent frustrations. The album’s cavernous echoes and masterful arrangements sprang to larger-than-life proportions like the American musicals Selma fantasized about in Dancer in the Dark. Both cohesive and inconceivably modern, Homogenic sounded like the future-music of childhood dreams.
While undeniably beautiful, Vespertine fails to give electronic music the forward push it received on Björk’s preceding albums. Rather than designing sounds never before imagined, the album merely sounds current, relying on the technology of standard studio software and the explorations of the Powerbook elite. There are few surprises here for the Björk fan, and fewer for the electro aficionado. Sure, it’s nice to listen to, but it rarely challenges like Post’s “Enjoy” and “Headphones,” or like Homogenic’s “Pluto.” And what’s a Björk album without the ambush?
That said, Vespertine has more than just a handful of charms. The record is gorgeously orchestrated with the Icelander’s neon string sections, chiming music boxes, and intricately arranged background Björks. Its production, though never truly groundbreaking, is always beautifully executed with washes of harp, organic synthsounds and majestic, dreamlike effects. Björk hasn’t lost her ability to create forested sonic otherworlds, or to achieve an overwhelmingly full sound while maintaining an air of wide, open space. In fact, it could be argued that, texturally, she has mastered her trademarks with this album.
“Hidden Place” opens Vespertine with a glitchy, almost lo-fi melodic loop, paired with the deep sub-bass attack that has dominated the low-end of Björk’s music in recent years. “Aurora” begins with rhythmic broomsweeps and awakens with delicate frosted chimes and angelic choirs. “Heirloom” alters between what sounds like a samba preset on a vintage Wurlitzer organ and skittering breakbeats, and is decorated with inverted synthtones and analog keyboards. And these songs, like all the others, are saturated in a thousand layers of whirling, grandiose strings and porcelain pings of fragile concordance.
Yet, Vespertine is riddled with sameness, and the unshakable feeling that you’ve heard these songs before. And coated in such a delicious sheen, it’s easy to miss that the music here lacks a major component of Björk’s past recordings; strip Vespertine down to melody alone, and you’re left with little substance. Only on occasion does Björk rise above the swelling symphonies and swirling digitalia with a memorable piece of music, and when she does, it seems fleeting. Perhaps it appears for a moment in the repetitious chorus of “It’s Not Up to You,” or the album’s shimmering closer, the Oval-sampling “Unison.” But blink and you’ll miss it, as it’s invariably swallowed whole by the album’s vast, ethereal instrumentation.
Glitch wizards Matmos were called in during the Vespertine sessions to co-produce many of the record’s tracks. I wonder where they are. Nowhere is their signature sound even remotely traceable. A theory: starstruck by Björk’s iconic visage, they lent what they felt she would want, and left the experimenting to their own releases. Clearly, Björk realized that this duo was capable of inventing sounds beyond her wildest dreams, but the end result is typical; not exactly a rehash, but nevertheless predictable.
Still, Vespertine makes for an intriguing listen, and manages to hold its own after hours on repeat. Were it not for the fact that Björk had already visited this terrain so reliably on previous outings, it could very well be her landmark achievement. But with the astounding Homogenic behind her, its melodies timelessly memorable and its production similarly captivating, Vespertine stands only as a pleasant journey back through her usual netherworld.