Photo: Nick Knight

In a way befitting of its creator, it was daring to release Vespertine in the dog days of summer. Released 20 years ago today, on August 27, 2001, Björk’s fourth full-length album took the icy exteriors of 1997’s Homogenic and went even further. She wanted to craft an album bound by domesticity, inspired by her newfound partnership with avant garde artist Matthew Barney, and delivered a record overflowing with wintry choirs and strings, icicle-delicate music box keyboards and beats. These tones and arrangements provided an idyllic backdrop to songs that mostly take place inside the home, wrapped up with a lover.

Conceived while filming Lars von Trier’s divisive musical, Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk starred and for which she wrote the film’s melancholy, whimsical soundtrack, Vespertine is a respite away from the business and chaos of the world. It may be a frosty record — the title literally means ‘relating to or occurring in the evening’, when the air is coolest and quietest — but it’s not alienating. There are moments here that may seem eerie or strange, but Vespertine also happens to be Björk’s most accessible and cohesive record in her sizeable catalogue. It has a welcoming character, feeling less like being stranded in the snow in subzero temperatures and more like pondering life from inside the warm cabin in the woods. 

The album got a similar type of critical response as her prior records. Homogenic and Post in particular received the kind of critical adoration that artists can usually only dream of, but Björk continued her streak with Vespertine. From here, Björk would continue down her own various rabbit holes, experimenting with the human voice on the dense Medulla, creating obtuse pieces about the natural world on Biophilia. She got almost perversely personal on 2015’s abstract and winding Vulnicura, a heartbreaking sequel to Vespertine in that it found her constructing brutal orchestral pieces to background her processing her split from Barney and what it meant for her family. It was something she was still working through on her ninth album, 2017’s Arca-assisted Utopia.

Vespertine is, by some metric, the final album of hers that feels like a ‘pop album’ in any traditional sense. That it happens to be her strongest statement in a career of strong statements is testament to its timelessness – although that was achieved somewhat fortunately. Björk was aware that, in 2001, most people acquired their music on CDs or through illegal download platforms like Napster, and ultimately would listen to compressed files through computer speakers. She wanted to create an album using instruments she believed would be less compromised by these listening circumstances, and opted for minimalist beats beneath light, glistening, delicate sounds, created by harp, clavichord, and custom-made plexiglass music boxes (seen in the image above). Of course, Björk being Björk, they were recorded in pristine fashion, and still sound gorgeous, if not better, today in the age of audiophilia where this kind of instrumentation is much more commonplace in popular music.

In recent years, Björk has finally begun receiving her rightful recognition as a composer and producer of her own music. When Vespertine came out, her male contributors often got the majority of the credit. Electronic duo Matmos, for example, worked with her on the beats, but despite Björk laying claim to about 80% of them, she got almost none of the credit. In light of this, and simply because the record has aged beautifully, Vespertine’s 20th birthday is surely cause for celebration. Now go bundle up and luxuriate in its humane, tender, and emotionally resonant winter light. – Jeremy J. Fisette

Side A

01. “Hidden Place”

A soft, thrumming electronic loop. “Through the warmthest cord of care, your love was sent to me”: so begins Björk’s remarkable Vespertine, an album that emerged from the stresses of working on Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark and the joys of new love with artist Matthew Barney.

The hypnotic “Hidden Place” is the album’s gentle clarion call: Björk had originally intended to call the album Domestika, and “Hidden Place” is both a musical and lyrical evocation of homespun bliss. “I have been slightly shy,” goes one lyric, as references to hiding under blankets, seeking solace and sanctuary, and lulling love to sleep signal the sharp volte-face from the occasionally strident Homogenic.

“Hidden Place” manages to convey this almost too-precious domestic paradise with a beautifully restrained vocal, skittering beats like insects’ feet programmed on her laptop and assisted by Matthew Herbert and Matmos, and a simply sublime choral arrangement. It sounds like music made in a secluded ice cave. The electronics, choir, bass, and vocal knit together like a chunky sweater. It’s utterly riveting, and quite as fresh today as twenty years ago. The beautifullest, fragillest, yet still strong, dark, and divine – the beginning of a remarkable piece of art. – Matthew Barton

02. “Cocoon”

Despite there being no shortage of songs about sex, there aren’t too many that sing about it with as much tenderness, seriousness, and emotional specificity as Björk does on second track, “Cocoon”.

Vespertine is very much an album about new love, but “Cocoon” is decidedly about sex with this new partner, namely the first sexual encounter with them; that feeling of being absolutely astonished that they’ve chosen to stay with you, that it wasn’t a one night stand or a feeble flame blown out too soon.

Atop a bed of gorgeous plinking keys that perfectly mirrors the music box aesthetic Björk had in mind while making this record, and skittering beats kissed with the lightest of vinyl hiss, she sings so close to the mic it’s like she’s inside you (much like the man is described as being inside her in this song). It’s explicit, but never tawdry, retaining her knack for intriguing wordplay — “He slides inside, half awake half asleep / We faint back / Into sleephood” — that’s both evocative and shockingly direct. The song now has an inky, sad cousin in Vulnicura’s “History of Touches”, which is about the final sexual encounter with this partner. But, writing a song that’s as sexual as “Cocoon” without ever feeling plainly lurid or bawdy is a feat; that Björk does it with such sparkling warmth and grace is only more impressive, and that can’t be understated. – Jeremy J. Fisette

03. “It’s Not Up To You”

Arguing the most beautiful song on Verspertine is the equivalent of arguing which colour of tastes the best in a packet of M&Ms. However, the third track on the album, “It’s Not Up To You”, with its playful yet heavenly strings, harp and choir, is certainly up there.

As a child, my mother constantly had Björk’s albums residing in her car with the frequently played trilogy Debut, Post and Homogenic being on constant rotation. Her music has always had a very emotional weight beyond what my six year-old self could really contemplate. I couldn’t fathom any meaning in the lyrics back then, but some instinctual part of myself recognised that the music was beautiful. Why else did I break down in tears when the rousing strings in “Isobel” suddenly appeared after its chorus?

Vespertine, however, was an album I properly discovered as an adult, and perhaps that was the optimum time to unearth such a gorgeous project. Undoubtedly one of the more grown-up albums, she finds a freedom in its erotic and romantic nature that is sung without a trace of cynicism. However, my favourite song on the album is one that lacks the sexuality that pulses within many of Verspertine’s tracks.

A glorious shapeshifter, “It’s Not Up To You” finds Björk coming to terms with something I still haven’t quite accepted: life is unpredictable. There are many directions such a theme could take, yet she makes the track a very bright spot that, rather than revealing all its marvellous cards at once, takes its pleasure in the slow unfurling. The beginning is a red herring with its ominous gurgling synths which are then joined by dreamy strings that gently swoon beneath the beat. “I wake up and the day feels broken…” Björk begins, which may initially seem miserable until she sings: “The evening I’ve always longed for / It could still happen.” It’s this healthy notion of not giving up hope completely, of remembering that what hurts this morning could be forgotten by the afternoon.

In the second verse, there’s even another attempt to create a semblance of an “ideal life” (“How do I master the perfect day? / Six glasses of water / Seven phone calls / If you leave it alone it might just happen / Anyway…”). Soon, however, a freeing logic finds itself in the song as it shifts into the euphoric chorus. “It’s not up to you” she sings with an aloof energy as the music soars around her before clarifying “Oh it never really was.” There’s a relief in relinquishing that belief that you can be prepared for every eventuality and that every structure created in life is assuredly sound. It feels as if Bjork has created a realm not of existential dread but rather existential empowerment where we can contemplate life without necessarily being crushed by it.

This track resounds more with me now than it did when I properly heard it some years ago. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you that life, for all its ugliness and tragedy, can be the most affirming thing if you simply acknowledge that there are things you cannot control. The true beauty of this song is that it neither coddles you or slaps you – it gives you an admittedly harsh reality while urging you not to succumb to its harshness. – JT Early

Side B

04. “Undo”

(Yes) The movement of two bodies. The sound of strained whispers. The clicking of nerve endings. The pleasure of fingertips. The echo of “ooooooh”s and “aaaaaaah”s. (Wait)

There is something wonderfully brittle and fragile about “Undo”. It is explicit – yes – but even moreso: intimate. (Now) Björk’s voice breaks, at times drops into gasps, then all of a sudden echoes. A choir, a string section – bodies and blankets. (Yes) Progressing from Opiates’ beat, the electronics sounding like flashing lights in total darkness (More) to harp, then to wet electronic rustling, “Undo” chronicles movements and impacts, while Björk’s anticipatory performance (“You’re trying too hard…” – “Sweetly”) explores the sonic space of in-betweens like lovers bodies do. (YES)

Of all the sweet and sexy songs on Vespertine, this is the one that rises above, finds expressions for the expressionless, allows Björk full sensuality and simulate the authentic. A promise: a whisper: a choir: two beats. (MORE) – John Wohlmacher

05. “Pagan Poetry”

In a post-Vulnicura world, a song like “Pagan Poetry” hits different. The dissolution of Björk’s relationship with Matthew Barney may have inspired some of her best and most emotionally devastating recent work, but its burgeoning infancy 20 years ago gave rise to the glistening, romantic, auditory bliss of Vespertine, which, at its fluttering heart and centre, featured a song that had the music fall away entirely so that Björk could repeatedly insist, “I love him, I love him, I love him.”

“Pagan Poetry” sees Björk wrestle between two elemental, internal forces: her sexual desire and her emotional needs. It’s a battle over her sense of self, over her identity as it shapeshifts under the aegis of committed coupledom: “this time, I’m going to keep me all to myself” she asserts as multi-tracked Björks coo like like Disney squirrels and bluebirds all around her, “but he makes me want to hand myself over.”

Elsewhere, the track is rich with erotic imagery, as in a quintessentially Björkian phrase, she describes the “blueprint of the pleasure in me.” It’s all made mysterious and darkly menacing by the custom music box that forms the song’s central musical hook, whilst the tectonic violence of the beat subverts Vespertine‘s reputation as being all lace and brittle icicles. This is a physical song about the physicality of giving oneself over sexually and emotionally, and within it, it contains the kernel of the pain that would come to pass many years down the line.

Its accompanying Nick Knight-helmed video finds a visual representation of that sacrifice of self and long-gestating pain that was too visceral for MTV and too wince-inducing for this music writer to watch more than once on his DVD of Björk’s collected music videos: a wedding dress literally sewn into her skin. A piercingly direct visual metaphor for Vespertine‘s most strikingly forceful song. – Andy Johnston

Pagan Poetry: Nick Knight / Björk from SHOWstudio on Vimeo.

06. “Frosti”

To most, the 100-second long “Frosti” is just a lovely interlude amidst a series of wintry dreams. But this is a Björk album – there are no ‘just’ anythings.

Having composed the song, and initially intended for it to have vocals, Björk sent the melodies to specialist music box maker Jack Perron and his team, who – carved? transcribed? – let’s say ‘put’ them into the stunning device. Far from the wooden music boxes of yore, Björk decided she wanted colourless, plexiglass boxes – much to the creators’ chagrin. “They couldn’t get their head round it – they were like ‘Why?’ They wanted to make the plonky sound softer with wood but I wanted it as hard as possible, like it was frozen,” she told Record Collector. Of course, ultimately, Björk got her own way: “In the end, they said it was the best thing they’d ever done.”

Just listen to the wonder of “Frosti”, and you know this to be true. It takes the homespun whimsy of a traditional music box and expands it into an immersive snow globe of sounds. While there are the tones of these custom boxes heard throughout Vespertine, this is the song where their magic shines clearest. – Rob Hakimian