At the time, Vespertine was seen as an understated sonic withdrawal from Homogenic – which was almost universally hailed as Björk’s definitive artistic statement. Vespertine, in my opinion, is a less erratic and a more generous, more nurturing record. Organic and electronic sounds don’t create stark, head-turning juxtapositions but blend into each other indiscriminately. Björk has an incomparable knack for imbuing abstract new meaning into words, to delineate the small gestures that make human intimacy this hallowed, mysterious thing. Listening back, it’s kind of impossible not to conflate some of the songs with our experiences of sex and intimacy, on both a sensory or emotional level.
On “Aurora”, Zeena Parkins’ nimble harp-playing harmonizes with the snow-crunching, nanite beats almost like two lovers tracing each other’s movements beneath the sheets: there is no real hierarchy within the arrangement of who plays the rhythm and who plays the melody. But the lyrics are somehow as abstract as they are explicit: “A mountain shade / Suggests your shape / I tumble down to my knees / Fill the mouth with snow.” On “Aurora” Björk’s voice is at its most powerful and piercing: I remember many times when she briefly woke me up again during the many nights I fell asleep to Vespertine. Especially the line “Shoot me beyond the surface” always sends a charge of electricity through my spine. Oftentimes when people profess to love, they can but express it within a specific parameter. A song like this feels made to evaporate all your defense mechanisms with one soft stroke. I guess that’s the inherent power of Björk: she can make pop music sound so far beyond its familiar tenets, she reaches for your core before the brain is able to process or contextualize what it is you’re hearing. She makes you look at the world from a fantastical vantage point, even when her music drifts towards agendaless softness and quietude. – Jasper Willems
08. “An Echo, a Stain”
For such a sort of enigmatic and mercurial figure, Björk has had her fair share of uncomfortable tabloid moments, such as the infamous time she attacked a reporter. But, inarguably the darkest news story about the singer is when it was revealed she had a stalker who had been planning to kill her with an acid bomb, only for his plans to be foiled. The story goes that he mailed the package, then took his own life, not living to see that it never actually arrived at the singer’s door. And while her lyrics in “An Echo, a Stain” are a bit abstract — almost like a painting that’s removed the main subject of the piece — it’s hard not to take this song as being about this terrifying experience.
Reportedly, the song is more closely inspired by a specific play that contains grim subjects like murder, suicide, and mental instability. Still, it’s unnerving to hear Björk sing, in a deeply detached and eerie tone, lines like: “One of these days / Soon… / Very soon…” and “Don’t say no to me / You can’t say no to me.” Maybe this song has nothing to do with that very real life almost-tragedy (you can find articles and even video pertaining to it online, but, you know, don’t). But even without that context, this one gets under your skin, especially with its minimalist sound design and rubbery bass wobbles. It’s one of the rare moments on the record that is completely devoid of joy, and arguably one of her scariest songs, but there it sits, at the heart of the album, pulsing away menacingly. – Jeremy J. Fisette
09. “Sun In My Mouth”
On Vespertine’s ninth track, “Sun in My Mouth”, Björk reconfigures E.E. Cummings’ poem “Crepuscule”. She converts it from a Romantic manifesto on transcendence and union with the absolute to a wistful dreamscape, a fanciful narrative set atop orchestral accents and unintrusive tintinnabulations (programmed and arranged by Björk and Guy Sigsworth).
“I will wade out till my thighs / are steeped in burning flowers,” Björk sings as the piece opens, her vocal melody surrounded by wispy harp sounds. As she navigates Cummings’ imagery (“to dash against darkness,” “the sleeping curves of my body”), strings are added, first minimally then more dynamically. “I will take the sun in my mouth,” she continues, lyricizing Cummings’ purification metaphor. When she concludes – “With chasteness of sea-girls / will I complete the mystery of my flesh” – her vocal brims with quiet longing (the final five lines of Cummings’ poem are dropped).
Throughout the two-and-a-half-minute cut, Björk’s voice remains watery, the instrumentation soft-edged and euphonic. In this way, “Sun in My Mouth”, and Vespertine as a whole, show the artist embracing a sense of restraint, elegantly countering the adrenalized electro-beats, throbbing textures, and seductive yet unsettling melodies of her previous album, Homogenic. – John Amen
It’s said that while good artists borrow, great artists steal. And by ‘stealing’, we sometimes mean ‘asking nicely to use another producer’s instrumental for a new song’. German producer Console’s “Crabcraft” had been in existence for a couple years before Björk inherited it for Vespertine, keeping it entirely intact and merely adding vocals on top.
The instrumental slots perfectly into Vespertine’s track sequence, and Björk’s vocals beautifully adorn the music’s negative space, never overshadowing Console’s subtle flourishes. The effect is so great that “Crabcraft” starts to feel incomplete without hearing about the dream where Björk’s family feeds her cough medicine. While it may not be ‘stealing’ in the literal sense, Björk still manages to pull off the coup of making someone else’s song sound like it was made for her. To accomplish such a feat is one mark of a great artist. – Harrison Suits Baer
11. “Harm of Will”
The first two Björk records I owned were Homogenic and Post, and it wasn’t until I heard “Harm Of Will” at the start of this interview that I started gravitating towards Vespertine. As she says so herself, this is the one track on the record that isn’t driven by a beat or pulse, but by the raw expression of the vocals and lyrics.
Björk composed the entire track on synths, giving it to Vince Mendoza to distribute all the parts to a 50-piece orchestra. A funny little tidbit on “Harm Of Will” is how none other than Harmony Korine provided some lyrics to the song. On a record like Homogenic, “Harm Of Will” would crescendo into sheer cinematic epicness, but within Vespertine’s icy, crystalline backdrop it feels so pristine and suspended in time: unhurried and remote from the stirrings of the prodding, public eye. – Jasper Willems
Throughout Vespertine, we’ve heard Björk luxuriating in the feelings of new love – emotional, spiritual, romantic and physical. As it comes time to close the album, she looks ahead to a life together, an existence of perfect “Unison” – and she can’t wait.
“I never thought I would compromise,” she repeats, as an example of just how much this love has transformed her. As beats bubble up below euphoric harps and angelic backing vocals, it feels like hearing her boundless love and excitement turned into pure euphonic sound.
Of course, while it is a pure-as-snow love song, there is still some space for Björkianism, especially as she describes her former self; “I thrive best hermit style / A beard and a pipe / And a parrot on each side,” she jokes. But you can practically hear her laughing as she gazes into her lover’s eyes and admits in the following line: “But now I can’t do this without you.”
Ascending towards the heavens on a cloud of pure adoration and satisfaction that’s outlined by a brief halo of violins, “Unison” overflows with such bliss that it can’t help but seep into you as you listen. “Let’s unite tonight / we shouldn’t fight,” she tenderly suggests in the desirous chorus; “embrace you tight / let’s unite tonight.” Of course, she’s talking about making love tonight, but also on every other ‘tonight’ from here to eternity. – Rob Hakimian