Does Vespertine Dream of Electric Sheep?
In the early days of the '00s, the digital epoch had just dawned upon the realm of recorded music, and few knew what to make of it. The popular discourse on the subject was framed by the battle waged between heavy-metal behemoth Metallica and file-sharing superstars Napster, and, whilst posing as an ideological debate about the worth of artistic endeavor, it was really just a debate about the root of all evil. Essentially, the conversation was a legal one, not an artistic one.
Radiohead's Kid A had arrived in 2000, at the turn of the new millennium, and immediately been crowned king of the new age, presided over the vast new realm of compressed audio files. But, Kid A's arrival at such an hour was a matter of fortune, not fate; a serendipitous coincidence that found the band integrating themselves in new electronic sounds at a time in which the music-lover and his computer had suddenly become inseparable bedfellows.
When Björk —that Icelandic elfin princess who had been authoring idiosyncratic pop-songs at electronic music's advancing frontiers for years— released Vespertine a year hence, it felt far different; an album not just of the times, but self-aware of such; not just a product of this brave new non-world, but wholly informed by that.
Vespertine might be the first-ever album that was designed to sound good after suffering through crushing digital compression. Björk consciously chose sound sources —dry vocals, brittle harp, plinking music box, patterns and waves of electronic static— that wouldn't lose their timbral effectiveness the lower the bit-rate went, making her, in 2001, alive to the times like few, if any, were.
What makes Vespertine even more intriguing is the way that it marries its musical ambitions to its thematic emotions. What makes it amazing is the way that those themes aren't what you'd expect at all. And what makes it great —truly great, the best record of this mighty artist's almighty career; quite possibly to the best album of the '00s— is the purity and intimacy of its feelings.
When you think of an album that, musically, explores the reaches of a new realm of digitized sound, the assumption would be, then, that the work would explore the subjects familiar from dystopian sci-fi parables: man versus machine, the death of humanity in a mechanized age, alienation, the surveillance state, etc. Themes that Radiohead's early-'00s oeuvre was knee-deep in. But Björk's audio paean to a new era was matched by a set of songs that were her most personal; her most intimate and internal.
The working title for Vespertine was Domestika, and the tunes live up to that billing. Working with warm-electro moodist Thomas 'Opiate' Knak, house-music/big-band conceptualist Matthew Herbert, and sample-scientist love-in Matmos (not to mentioning sampling digital-corruptor Oval), Björk's production weaves tiny, crackling, skittery beats into gossamer sonic blankets, stretches out swathes of keyboards, and lays her vocals down within. So many of the songs seem written from under-the-covers: "Cocoon" a half-smudged memory of semi-slumberous sex; "Heirloom" a disturbed dream-sequence tripping deep into Björk's maternal subconscious; "It's Not Up to You" the dawning thoughts upon a woken morning.
The tactility of that feeling —head on pillow, sheets on skin, or, indeed, skin on skin— isn't lost when Björk wriggles out of her domestic Cocoon; Vespertine full of moments of contact: handshakes, a hand on an arm, breath on a neck, water brushing thighs, fingers stroking fingers. This isn't an album of dehumanization and alienation, but a catalogue of moments of genuine intimacy; a collage of touch and feel, of touching and feelings, simply written with an ear to the ground and an eye upon new horizons.
Record Label: One Little Indian
Release Date: August 27, 2001