Bjork Gudmundsdottir made her first album, Bjork, in Iceland in 1977. She was eleven years old, a child-thrush packaged in disco cheese, Arctic reggae and Icelandic-language, lounge-candy covers of Melanie and the Beatles. Twenty-four years later, Bjork has made the best solo record of her career, Vespertine. She still sings like an arrested schoolgirl, a vocal rainbow of fragile chirp, pleading falsetto and jubilant shriek. But Bjork has also passed into a spectacular new divahood. She now whoops and coos with the poise of an innocent primed by experience, a wise spirit with a juvenile glow. At the age of thirty-five, Bjork sounds like she is eleven — going on infinity.
She has taken the long road to the meticulous sparkle and deep feeling of Vespertine. The teen queen of Reykjavik’s early-1980s punk uprising, Bjork hit the world stage with the Sugarcubes, charging the band’s pop-art mischief with operatic force and lyric vulnerability, a combination that at its best — on the 1988 album Life’s Too Good — felt like a young girl’s diary thrown into a tornado. Bjork’s first records after leaving the Sugarcubes, Debut (1993) and Post (1995), were piquant stews of hip-hop gesture, gingerbread electronica and fairy-tale parable. But in spite of all that imagination and Bjork’s good taste in collaborators (Nellee Hooper, Talvin Singh, 1970s-fusion maestro Eumir Deodato), those albums now seem incomplete, shotgun displays of her remarkable vocal range and the unresolved differences between the worldly Bjork and her perpetual inner elf.
Vespertine is a particle beam in comparison, as weightless as light but concentrated with direction. There is nothing remotely close to drumming on any of the album’s twelve tracks. The flurry of rhythm at the start of “Cocoon” has the gravity of a spider scurrying across linoleum. The electronic beats running under the glassy ballad “It’s Not Up to You” are mostly drips and squishes, the soft gallop of baby boots in fresh mud. Vespertine is awash in strings and choirs, but Bjork exercises care in spreading the spangle. In “Pagan Poetry,” she deploys the implied heaven of Zeena Parkins’ harp and a flotilla of music boxes with an Asian-teahouse touch. The faint winds of synthesizer in “An Echo a Stain” magnify Bjork’s cries and purrs with such reverbed clarity that she even seems to breathe in melody.
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The tidy drama of the programming and arrangements on Vespertine suits the physical electricity of Bjork’s voice. Her self-consciousness on earlier albums is gone; Bjork moves through this music with focused, contagious pleasure. It is no accident that Bjork’s helpmates on Vespertine include the San Francisco computer duo Matmos and that the long, gorgeous “Unison” features a sample from the German group Oval. Vespertine is the closest any pop-vocal album has come to the luxuriant Zen of the new minimalist techno, even beating Radiohead’s nervy Kid A. Where Kid A sounded like a record of risk, the work of a band on unfamiliar ground, Bjork sings here as if she owns and knows every inch of space and shadow in these songs.
That musical and emotional breakthrough might not have been possible without Bjork’s controversial triumph last year in Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark, in which she played a bedeviled single mother — slowly going blind, accused of murder — who finds refuge in dreams of old movie musicals. In her screen performance and on her soundtrack album, Selmasongs, Bjork captured with acute tenderness the wonder of interior music, the way a lonely soul can burst inside with healing song. On Vespertine, she goes even further. When she opens her mouth, words and notes don’t come out — you go in, swept up to a box seat inside her head.
It’s a busy room — as naked as the music is, Vespertine is dense with sensual obsession and fear of loss. “He invents a charm that makes him invisible/Hides in the hair/Can I hide there too?” Bjork wonders in the floating beauty “Hidden Place.” “Aurora” is a song about literally dissolving with pleasure; Bjork prays to become one with the pure color of the northern lights. And in “Pagan Poetry,” she likens her carnal urges to “swirling black lilies totally ripe” and the transforming imprint of one hand held in another (“Crooked five fingers/They form a pattern/Yet to be matched”). One of the album’s most addictive passages is the haunting exchange, at the end of the song, between Bjork and an overdubbed chorale of Bjorks, all hypnotized with need and shimmering with certainty: “I love him, I love him . . . She loves him, she loves him.”
Vespertine is also an album about the sheer joys of voice. In “Heirloom,” Bjork likens the art of singing to swallowing and exhaling “glowing lights”: “During the night/They do a trapeze work/Until they’re in the sky/Right above my bed.” She also borrows the verse of the poet e.e. cummings in the brief, gleaming “Sun in My Mouth”: “I will wade out till my thighs/Are steeped in burning flowers/I will take the sun in my mouth/And leap into the ripe air alive.” They are the sound and sentiment of a woman exulting in the power and possibility of her gift, one who has finally figured out how to grow up without growing old.