Sunday, November 16, 2014

Indistinct Bjork: Vespertine. The Only Thing Worse Than Weird Bjork, Is Boring Bjork!

The Good: Moments with genuine creativity
The Bad: Boring, Repetitive, Utterly unmemorable, Incomprehensible, Unimpressive vocally and musically, Familiar
The Basics: Bjork creates what some would have doubted the strange artist could: an album that is utterly bland and boring, indistinct and underwhelming in every sense.

Bjork may well be an acquired taste, but as I pretty much finish up my run of listening to her albums (I'll still take on her "Greatest Hits," because I cannot seem to find my review of that anywhere), I think it is a fair statement to say that the bulk of her work is creative and very different from the norm. The problem is that when she is not being weird and so different as to be unsettling and creepy, her works are just plain dull. Unfortunately, with Vespertine, Bjork crosses the line from being truly alternative and unique (even if I did not like the results) to boring, familiar and pedestrian. Vespertine is Brand Bjork; for those who have listened to her other works, there is nothing truly new and different here.

The only real difference between Vespertine and albums like Debut and Selmasongs is that Bjork does not push out the envelope in any new way. The result is an album that is indistinct and unmemorable. I am on the eighth listen through the album and I swear I could not pick out a single track. Moreover, whenever it begins to replay, I never notice, so homogenous is the sound on the album.

With twelve tracks clocking in at a little under fifty-six minutes, Vespertine is indisputably the work of Icelandic alternative singer-songwriter Bjork. On the album she wrote (or co-wrote) all of the tracks as well as produced (or co-produced) all of the songs. As well, she provided the primary vocals for each song, did arrangement of choirs, harp and programming on many of the tracks (often with others). Moreover, she plays harp on one of the tracks and laid down the bassline on other tracks. She is intimately involved, according to the liner notes, with each track on Vespertine. This, truly, is her album.

Unfortunately, Bjork is - at best - an artist who has poetics that are memorable and a concept of individuality that is laudable. Unfortunately, on Vespertine, the lyrics are not up to the caliber of some of her other poems and what can be understood tends to be so only because of repetition. Vespertine is plagued by repeated lines that are just grating listen after listen. This starts with the first track, "Hidden Place." I swear if it were not for the words lines "I'll keep it in a hidden place" and the variants that all include "Hidden Place" in them, the song is indecipherable. But lyrically, it is not that interesting even to read.

This is saying something because the lines - as printed in the liner notes - are some of the most sexual that Bjork has ever written. But she manages to take somewhat sensual lines like ". . . But I can smell a pinch of hope / To almost have allowed once fingers / To stroke / The fingers I was given to touch with / But careful careful / There lies my passion hidden . . ." ("Hidden Place") and gut the mood by attaching the intriguing lines to the virtually same repetitive lines that are heard before and after it. In other words, Bjork's attention to structural convention and more traditional refrains (or at least two word phrases repeated ad nauseam) guts the originality of her lines.

And while it seems like she might be developing themes on Vespertine, like a theme of fingers, which come up on "Hidden Place," "Pagan Poetry," and "Sun In My Mouth," she never truly lands them. Instead, she opens with the idea of fingers as sexual organs and then goes nowhere with the idea.

The album, instead becomes obsessed with repetition. Track after track, the few lines that are comprehensible are made so by repetition. "Undo," which is plagued by repeated background vocals of "It's not meant to be a struggle uphill" precedes "Pagan Poetry" alliterative title pops up with annoying frequency and obviousness and then degenerates into "She loves him" being repeated over and over again.

I write "when comprehensible," because - like many albums by Bjork, Vespertine features the Icelandic soprano leaping all over the vocal range but presenting most of the lyrics with a whispy voice that is hardly forceful or articulate. Force is present with "Aurora," which also has the annoyingly repetitive - though thematically sensible for creating an aural presentation of light - high pitched vocal progression scales. But after being forceful, she mumbles her way through the latter half of the song.

And on Vespertine, Bjork's voice is hardly impressive. Instead, it is remarkably traditional and obvious; it sounds like it could be almost any female singer who is produced into the music. But most of the lines are not comprehensible because Bjork sings them quietly and with little emphasis on them. Truly, this is the definition of indistinct music. None of her vocal performances stand out, save that one recognizes that she is singing when she repeats the same lines over and over and over again.

On the plus side, it does seem like Bjork's pronunciations on Vespertine are more true to the English language. This is a plus because she seems to insist on singing in English. On this album, what can be understood actually sounds like Bjork fully understands what she is singing. (On prior albums some of her pronunciations were just terrible and she sang her lines with a quality so tentative that it felt like perhaps she had been given a translation of her own works and did not know exactly what words corresponded with the ones she wrote.)

Like many of her albums, Bjork produces various sounds into the songs, like her trademark animal sounds on "An Echo, A Stain." But here is an excellent example of Brand Bjork formula; almost all of the songs are produced and assembled the same way. They are all quiet songs, with disproportionate emphasis on drowning the lyrics out with strings and production elements. The notable exception to this is "Sun In My Mouth," wherein Bjork holds her own against the harp.

Like many of her albums, Vespertine also emphasizes percussion over the lyrics, which is awkward to be able to hear what is keeping time over what is being said. The percussion is most notable on "Heirloom" which is also one of the most heavily produced tracks on the album. It also sounds like it could have been on virtually any other Bjork album.

And therein lies the problem with Vespertine. As mentioned before, it is generally a quiet album and each song is presented in almost the same way as the one before it and the one after and as a result, the album flows from track to track, reloaded without leaving any impression. "Flow" tends to imply a good sense of arrangement; "blend" would probably be a more accurate assessment of the music on Vespertine. The songs blend together in a way that is very dull to the ear. Truth be told; I might have listened to this album more than the eight times I think I have, given that the replay does not strengthen the listen.

Fans of Bjork will not find anything they have not heard before. Not literally, of course; this is entirely new material. The problem is that it does not sound remotely new. This is the same old thing and it is familiar and boring. Those unfamiliar with Bjork will not be bowled over by anything on this album. Musically it is dull and it sounds more like a sublime pop album than a truly alternative work. It is common, overproduced and lacking in originality and/or vision.

The best track, if it could be said to be one (given how it blends), is the purely instrumental "Frosti." Everything else on the album could be considered one, long, mundane, inferior track.

For other works by Bjork, please check out my reviews of:
Selmasongs: The Soundtrack To Dancer In The Dark


For an organized listing of all my music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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