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Monday, 27 August 2012

Björk - Vespertine (2001)

During my second and third years at Keele University, I lived in a shared house in Newcastle-under-Lyme. One of the people I lived with embodied a plethora of bizarre emotional and psychological issues. He was afraid of many things: alcohol, motorways, spiders, black people, and his mother (I’m not kidding). His issue with alcohol was that he once had a few drinks when he was 17, and when he got home he sat on the kitchen work surface – this terrible act caused his mother to be incredibly upset, and he vowed not only to never drink again, but also to preach about the horrors of drinking (he would always tell the kitchen counter story).

He had views that would make Richard Littlejohn feel uneasy. We were once sitting around watching the Brit Awards, and as the Sugababes were performing, he made comments like “they deserve to get raped for wearing clothes like that” and concluded that they were the reason that the teenage pregnancy rate was so high – we laid into him quite heavily for these comments, and he thought that we were simply bullying him.

What annoyed me the most about him was that he would only listen to three artists: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sigur Rós, and Björk. On an evening he would, for example, play Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute album three times in a row at considerable volume. What made matters worse was that he would always provide his own bass-guitar complement to the tracks, and boy did he love to play slap-bass. Before moving in with the guy, I had been a big fan of these three bands, but a combination of hearing them over and over and over again, and the association with him and his issues, has meant that I’ve not been able to bring myself to listen to anything by these artists since.

His obsession with Björk trumped the other two acts considerably. He had every album, EP, single, live DVD, film and box-set that she released. At social gatherings he would put live DVDs on, or even worse, the horrible Dancer in the Dark (a film in which Björk gets hanged at the end). He liked Björk so much that for Christmas his girlfriend made him a collage of pictures of Björk that she’d printed from the internet, all surrounding a drawing of her that she’d done. She mounted it on a large piece of card, and he loved it. He loved it so much that he spent a small fortune to get a custom-made frame to fit it.

On listening to Björk today, it seems that enough time has passed for me to really appreciate her music again. Vespertine is a beautifully put-together album, with its sweeping strings, otherworldly backing vocals, majestic harps, chiming music boxes, and an intricate and detailed backing track of synths and electronic beats. The production is excellent, with each piece of instrumentation clear in the mix, but dream-like in their effect – this is definitely an album I’ll be revisiting late at night with headphones.

Album-opener ‘Hidden Place’ begins with a brooding melodic synth loop, deep pulsations of sub-bass and glitchy clicks and beats. Then the song breaks into a chorus of layered vocals that hit you like a supernova. ‘Aurora’ combines found-sounds (such as the sound of someone sweeping) with angelic vocals and music-box melodies – a delicate and fragile piece of music that feels as though it could shatter at any moment. ‘Heirloom’ feels like a collaboration with Synthesiser Patel of Look Around You fame: with its vintage synths and drum machine combining with layers upon layers of strings and almost inaudible electronic beats.

The only criticism that I have of this album beyond the associations with a former housemate are that it is incredibly samey. The songs all use similar beats and instruments, with some tracks even harking back to others with similar melodic elements. This could be seen as consistency of the artist’s vision: every track sounds as though it has been stripped down to its necessary components, as though by doing this Björk was trying to attain some kind of musical purity. With a lot of Björk albums, she tends to throw the odd curveball: tracks like ‘Pluto’ or ‘Enjoy’ from previous albums were innovative and challenging to listen to, but there is nothing on Vespertine that really makes you sit up and think, “what is this?”

This being said, Vespertine is an intriguing and magical-sounding album. It is echoey and dreamy, and brings to mind feelings of calm winter mornings. It’s a very easy album to listen to and get lost in - definitely a keeper.

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Anonymous said...

your housemate sounds like a wanker. Id of punched him.

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