We are rattling through now aren’t we? On to the fifth album now, a chilly Vespertine. Now don’t get me wrong, and I know you all WILL because this seems to be as much a sacred cow as Vespertine. But while it’s not going out of its way to annoy me like I felt Homogenic had a tendency to, I am having real trouble thinking of this as anything other than a return to normality on one side, but a bit of a dull listen on the other.
Sonically I love the feel of the album, it’s all very wintery and Nordic, lots of unusual instrumentation, jingly-jangly bits here, a glockenspiel or two there. But while I felt Homogenic’s experimental sounds were touch and go, at least they brought some truly astonishing highlights. Vespertine heads for the middle ground, and never quite matches the heights (or the depths, thankfully).
(PS- Swan dress! It took me years to spot that)
09 Hidden place – So, lead single and a really distinctive intro. Perfect start to this wintery and mysterious album, and showcasing one of the best features of this album – that lovely ghostly choir. They really set the scene, particularly on the chorus, and give a great sense of drama. The percussion is doing much better in its natural role as backing music rather than fighting with Bjork for the spotlight. Speaking of Bjork, she sticks to the script and just sings the song, for better or worse. It doesn’t have the hooks of earlier singles, though that video is quite mesmerising. That fact alone was enough to lure me in to listen to more when this came out, so I suppose it did its job perfectly.
07 Cocoon – How was THIS picked for a single!? A truly strange video too, I’m not sure I’ve eaten strawberry bootlaces since… That skippy vinyl noise works surprisingly well as a soundbed to this rather minimal track. Her vocals for the most part keep this together, though I hate the recording, sounds like she’s just taped it at home on her Hi-Fi (though her Hi-Fi probably has seashells and dollies glued to it). That shrill horrible note – you know the one – towards the end, never fails to make me think “What the fuck am I listening to?”. A bit MUCH. She JUST about keeps it together, I won’t rate too harshly just for that one awful moment, generally it’s quite a nice track that puts me in the spirit of Possibly Maybe, but it is nowhere NEAR as good.
08 It’s not up to you – Normal service resumes now, even though it takes to the chorus to really get things blossoming into its full beauty. The glassy instrumentation on the verses is quite nice, and the occasional orchestral flourishes are worth the wait. I have sort of lost interest in her lyrics for the most part, the bits I do pick up just sound like waffling nonsense for now so I’ll just enjoy the soundscape. The choir arriving for the last third really raises this up and makes it a real highlight for me. That last 30 seconds, is that an interlude? Just make it a new track!
06 Undo – Sadly this one is a bit more akin to Cocoon, and not in a good way, I’m not really living for these vocals. It really does rest on the backing here, which only really gets notable after a minute but even then stays quite basic. Again it only really gets listenable once the choir arrives back from their cigarette break towards the end. But otherwise I find this a rather forgettable track. I do love that strange harp outro though.
10 Pagan Poetry – Another single (admittedly singles from this album are a bit of a hard sell). Happily this is an easy choice and really takes the best sounds from this album, frosty-sounding harp, buzzing heavy bass notes, a choir, and a great vocal. This is just one of the memorable moments of the album, really emotive and striking. The breakdown part doesn’t even ruin the flow, and more than justifies the 5 minute runtime (for a change). That last segment “He makes me want to hurt myself” really sells itself to me, I find that really impassioned and believable.
08 Frosti – Interlude time now, to cool off from Pagan Poetry, and some really gorgeously chilling stuff going on, really lovely. Like a music box or something, and a perfect example of what I love about the sonic theme of this album.
06 Aurora – A snowy trudge opens this track, but the pace doesn’t really get much faster. The instrumentation from Frosti makes a semi-return in a diluted form, but the song is just a bit meandering. Sure there are nice melodic wails in there, with the standby choir chiming in when needed. But I don’t really get too much from this track, it’s just a bit plinky-plonky with blah lyrics.
07 An echo a stain – You can really tell this is a Guy Sigsworth collab can’t you? While that in itself isn’t a bad thing, it feels a bit detached from the feel of the album, a lot darker somehow. A creeping menace of a beat, with some really haunted sinisted vocals going on too. A bit difficult to get into as a song, it almost feels more like it should have been part of Selmasongs, and that it would make more sense in the context of some dramatic plot moment in a film. Not really sure about this one, but at least it’s memorable.
07 Sun in my mouth – Randomly I heard this playing in the gym this week (in the changing room & the lobby, not on the floor!). Based on an e.e.cummings poem, a bit to avant garde for me (wish me luck with Drawing Restraint 9), and like Aurora it just sort of pootles along and doesn’t make a huge impact on me. There are only so many dreamy wintry soundbeds you can listen to in a row before you get desensitised to them really.
07 Heirloom – An unusally uptempo beat kicks things off, with a few whirrs and hisses that put me in the mind of the more industrial sounding Selmasongs again. I don’t know what the hell she’s on about again, swallowing little light? Don’t try this at home. The production sets this apart from the other tracks, but it’s still a bit of a strange one, it sort of fits the mould of a conventional song, but I can’t really get my hooks into this. Nice enough but difficult to recall afterwards.
06 Harm of will – I think I just dozed off for a minute, what was I doing? Ah that was it, dragging myself to the end of this album. Going almost acapella now, a few bleeps and bloops joining her occasionally. That nice old choir are back and rescue this from being a stone cold bore, they really are glorious aren’t they? But that’s about all there is to this. While at this point in “Post” I was ready for a lullaby moment to ease me off to the end, Vespertine really hasn’t earned that, and this is just another nondescript choral piece of fluff.
07 Unison – The last gasp now, all 7 minutes of it, get comfy. Starts unsurprisingly downtempo, but the beat arrives, and some plinky-plonking harp or shamisen or something, it’s even got a bit of a bounce to it after a few minutes. What I presume to be the chorus has a nice memorably simple melody to it, though again she’s never hitting the heights she reached in the first half of the album. Oh the strings! What a lovely surprise? Where have you been for this whole bloody album? 7 minutes really IS too much though.
So there we have it, it’s an album of two halves, the first of which is a delight for the most part, but the second is just dead weight to me. I love the feeling and the idea of this album more than I like its delivery. It’s just that for every moment of crisp, pristine, freshly-fallen snow, there are other parts moving at a glacial pace and just aren’t distinctive enough to hold their own. After the rampant experimentalism of Homogenic only partly paying off, it’s definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for”, and while this never plumbs the depths reached on other albums, it never quite hits the heights either.
Keepers for the iPod: Hidden Place, Pagan Poetry, Frosti
Up next: Medulla (2004)