Label: One Little Indian Format: CD
If, at any point in the last six or seven years, you had only taken the time to ask, then I would have told you, dear reader, that Björk Gudmundsdottir was THE Great Pop star of the 1990’s, what Bowie was to the 70’s, and, I would contend, Prince to the 1980’s. I use the term great not in the term of these people selling the most records, although they all have done great business there too, in their time. What I am referring to is a certain kind of character who is the best example of their age, a unique voice completely of their times and yet somehow always outside of and beyond them, a genius at the peak of their powers, doing their best work (and here we come to the key bit) While The World Catches On.
Now, this is a rare enough phenomenon, and one to be treasured, as the usual way these things run in Rockandroll is that the band or artist invariably gets bigger and bigger as they get worse and worse and worse, i.e: Pink Floyd, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, Simple Minds, etcetera etcetera. Either that, or they were always crap in the first place but the product was so bland and easy to commodify that it just kept on selling: George Michael – yes, that’s enough, you can sit down now.
But these other, rarer people redefine the term ‘Pop’ to mean something different from what we are used to. Instead of it being simply the lowest common denominator throwaway blandness, – what we all object to least – they make it come to have the possibility of meaning something so unique, so personal that it somehow becomes universal. Without compromise, it somehow manages to touch almost everyone. Something completely of itself, and irreducible, but so great that everybody wants a piece. It becomes POPULAR. This is the essence of all the great visionaries of art – Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Beethoven, Mozart, Dali, Van Gogh, Ginsberg, Blake, Bukowski, Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson, Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift… the worth of them all is that all of them have their own voice, that none of them sound like each other.
This is important.
Björk belongs to this line because even to the most passing observer, she is obviously a brave and unique individual, and she has never played the game of Pop stardom correctly. Even though she has worked long and hard in that most anonymous of fields, dance music, she has always staked her claim out and made it serve her own ends instead of following fashion. She got there out of a genuine excitement and curiosity. Her songs themselves are a natural extension of that unique self. No-one else could sing her songs and have them really mean anything. Her choice of words and her way of singing them – her voice, Jesus Christ, her VOICE above all – are so unique to her that any copy of them can only be a hollow act and a pale imitation. On “Pagan Poetry”, from her new album, she pushes her voice perhaps further than ever before. There is no other human being alive that could sing this song. To try would be like trying to imitate a forest fire.
This new album , just out, is called Vespertine – as in of the evening; evening prayers. and it is a fitting title. Where, on Homogenic – her last album proper – the focus of the sound was entirely on strings and beats, here it is all music boxes and massed choirs, and the overall effect is deeply churchly, if you don’t mind the invention of a word. A long while ago now, when she first entered blinking into the harsh light of superstardom, Björk said something to the effect of she was going to enjoy it while it lasted, because it couldn’t possibly last, and she was going to be making music until she was 70, for most of which time, no-one would be listening. It seems to me that this album is her furtherest steps yet away from and outside of the world of the Pop star.
And so, with this album we have the sound of her moving further into the untamed territory in the wild wild wilderness somewhere out between the mines claimed and worked by Diamanda Galas and Nina Simone: proud sonic experimentalists always bnOut There on the periphery but noble figures, always pure and true. It seems probable that Björk has always regarded this place as her natural home.
It isn’t an album that is going to convert you to her genius on the strength of its Pop tunes, although there are some beautiful melodies to be found within here: “Hidden Place”, the first single, is here in a more well-rounded and fully realised version than you may have heard already. “Aurora” and “Heirloom” and the already mentioned “Pagan Poetry” have an immediacy and beauty you cannot find anywhere else. The chorus of “It’s Not Up To You” will take you and tumble over you the way that “Hyperballad” and “Joga” and “Bachelorette” and “Isobel” and “All Is Full Of Love” and all those others would have taken you and tumbled over you, had you only been paying attention.
But in all it is a retreat from that world of the Pop charts. She has already proved herself there, and her curiosity is leading her away to even more foriegn climes to explore and reshape sound. Listening to this album reminds me once again that what Radiohead have been deservedly applauded for doing their past couple of albums, Björk has been doing for 5 or 6 years at least: The experimentalist Electronica, strange time signatures, voices cut and pasted back together.. she has been doing these so long that it just about sounds like business as usual. This time round, though, the sound is internal, womb-like, a retreat. Rich, deep, intimate, sensual. Choral. Ageless. “Aurora” sounds like a hymn from any time the past thousand years. At times, especially on the closing two songs, you can hear the sound of her time spent on Dancer in the Dark, the film she starred in and composed music for last year. and there are times,in fact, that the whole album sounds more like the soundtrack to a very lush musical than anything else.
To me, all this sounds like the abdication of that throne of the great Pop star, like she has left it behind to go a-wandering. But that’s okay, another one always comes along, they always have and they always will. By the sound of this, though, her adventures in exile are going to be just as fascinating in and of themselves.