Having played a blind protagonist in one of the most controversial films of 2000, and having put the finishing touches on the body-hugging swan that was to be the year’s most conspicuous Oscar costume, Björk Gudmundsdóttir went home. She shut the front door, let the blinds down over frosted windows, made herself a hot chocolate, and sat on the velvet couch. Familiarity. Household objects, soft noises like cats’ paws and a warm stove, the gentle sound of her own space. She took out her laptop computer, fed her Icelandic mutt, and got to work on the fifth and quietest album of her oceanic career.
A woman’s thirties are widely believed to be her prime. She is young enough to be active, attractive, and precocious, yet old enough to be wise, independent, and securely provocative. Björk’s solo releases have increasingly swelled with the urge for solitude and calm. On her 1993 debut, Debut, she grips the classic Björk theme between her teeth and shook it all over us: “Have you ever been close to a human. . . . There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic.” On her fourth creation, Homogenic, she’s still unsettled by her entire species: “I have walked this earth and watched people; I can be sincere and say I like them. . . . I want to go on a mountaintop with a radio and good batteries . . . and free the human race from suffering.” And then came the soundtrack of Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, for which she wrote the sad, fantastical songs of her tragic character, Selma—born poor, rapidly going blind, and moving toward death row. There’s always the sense that Björk is forcing herself into the open, resisting the propensity to stay inside with her own brilliant poetry, and with music that she truly, childishly, believes can save the bestial world. Here is Björk’s delicious charm. With her latest release, Vespertine, she is sounding at a resolutory level she’s been craving all along.
“Hidden Place” is the album’s first single. “I have been slightly shy,” Björk whispers. “And I can almost feel a pinch of hope to almost allow one’s fingers to stroke.” Right now, Björk is inviting Eskimo girls into her Icelandic home studio to sing, move, and look like themselves in an audition for the Vespertine world tour. All 12 tracks are coated, along with glorious harp and clavichord, with a choir of angelic voices. So when they’re not in the background, the Björkesque Eskimos will be rejoicing above all other noises, declaring modest realization and finally admitting acceptance of the human battle.
“Vespertine” means all these things: of or occurring in the evening, the opening of a flower, the time near sunset, flying in the evening. In the artist’s words, “I needed this album to explore what we sound like on the inside. You know, that ecstasy, that euphoric state that happens while whispering.” In the album’s omniscient chorus, and in the absence of the dance beat that has become more and more present in Björk’s repertoire, there is the feeling of a flower—already bloomed in all its colors, first closing, then reopening to a different and white space where everything sits at peace with itself or at peace not to be.
So this is not an album for the megahertz of internationally renowned clubs. On Debut—tempo-wise perhaps the tamest of her five solo albums—Björk’s rhythmic, instrumental, and lyrical idiosyncrasies were moved along by an underlying throb. After the first mature decision a woman can make—separating herself from the Sugarcubes to stand in the world on her own—she did the dance of first love on her solo debut, and felt violent happiness, “because you’re not here.” On Post, she teases and tests civilization, throwing “things like car parts, bottles, and cutlery” while tiptoeing on the edge of a mountaintop, all “so I can feel happier”; she also proposed an evolutionary theory: “All the modern things, like cars and such, have always existed, they’ve just been waiting . . . listening to the irritating noises of dinosaurs and people.”
By Homogenic—on the cover of which she appears as the Ice Queen, eyes digital and stormy, lips tightly pursed, silver-clawed and bound like a geisha girl—the extroversion of her social and environmental explorations is louder than ever: from the military cadence of the opening track, “Hunter,” to the emergency “Joga” revels in, to the worldwide hit single “Bachelorette,” stomping and booming, “I’m a fountain of blood (my love), in the shape of a girl.”
But just as Thom Yorke, who collaborated and sang with Björk for Selmasongs, took a step inside on Radiohead’s latest step forward, Amnesiac, so Björk has slowed everything down. (In fact, one track, the aptly named “Cocoon,” is decidedly reminiscent of the introspective Amnesiac vibe.) Vespertine is an album for small curtained establishments, for taking your “little ghetto blaster” onto back streets, for intimate and precious occasions. And whereas the world was curiously apprehensive of where Radiohead would go next, the security of solitude seems the only natural move for Björk.
Running her hands along the tops of shelves, crouching beneath the kitchen table, fondling the bedroom mirror, rediscovering the scent of her perfume, Björk found Vespertine at home. Cheese grating, cards being shuffled, coffee grinding, candles in the night are the sounds she used to make her most comfortable expressions yet. There’s no more “I want to walk on a mountaintop” or “I could take off to an island” or “Excuse me but I just have to explode.” On Vespertine she’s opening all her limbs, she is Mother—”If you are tearing yourself apart, undo.” Let go of all you know, and see what’s left. Björk has found her center—unabashed. “This time I’m gonna keep me all to myself.” But she doesn’t, she can’t. “I love him I love him I love him I love him I love him.”