Supposedly, Sergey Rachmaninoff wrote his magical 1915 “Vespers” entirely at night in order to understand the atmosphere of the all-night Russian Orthodox Church vigil where it was first performed. The seamless, entwined melodic whisper reshaped common folk melodies of prerevolutionary Russia into something mysterious, disorienting and secretive, setting the work far apart from the flamboyant exuberance of Rachmaninoff’s commonly known works for piano. If the story is true, we should use it as a clue to understand Björk’s Vespertine; we should walk from the record store holding it close to our chests and listen to it secretly on our headphones in the middle of the night.
In emotive spirit, Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” and Björk’s Vespertine are kindred, presenting songs of breathless wonder that unfold through night secrets. According to Björk, Vespertine was (like “Vespers”) written almost entirely at night, and by opening with “Hidden Place,” Vespertine’s environment is immediately set, shedding former visions of fountains of blood and volcanic eruptions with a finger to her lips and a dozen tracks of insider information. This trade is most evident in the orchestration, with its clean, subtle beats that are born from the IDM movement, the abundance of celesta, harp and music box and the exertion of much more control over her signature orchestral artillery. Reducing the volume has no bearing on her ability to express, however, and by rarely rising above a whisper throughout the record, she is able to make her vocal explosions all the more dramatic. And when Vespertine is dramatic, it is still under control because of the stunning amount of reflective maturity last year’s Selmasongs: Dancer In The Dark introduced. The best examples of this come with “Pagan Poetry” or “It’s Not Up to You,” which are dynamically most akin to her previous solo efforts and prove to be Vespertine’s only glimpse at the unconfined intuitive character of Homogenic and Post. Because of her unmatched capacity for reinvention, the record’s end finds most references to Björk’s former work irrelevant, and finds us as auditors in the same disoriented dream that probably befell the congregation of Rachmaninoff’s Mass — and that disorientation is one of true wonder.
Nate Cavalieri writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].