I find myself in an interesting position this time. I’m about to attempt one review of two albums that are actually the same album.
Let me explain.
Last month, while I was in Europe, I happened across a copy of Bjork’s new album, Vespertine. I’m a huge Bjork fan, as evidenced by the fact that she’s made my Top 10 List twice, in 1998 with Homogenic and last year with Selmasongs. Hence, I jumped at the chance to hear her new one a few weeks early. I bought it, listened to it a few times, sighed audibly and prepared to deem it below average when the U.S. release hit.
Cut to yesterday. Vespertine came out in the U.S., but the version that hit stateside record stores bears only a halfway resemblance to the version I picked up across the pond. Lo and behold, with the excision of a few sub-par tracks, the addition of a few superior ones and a complete resequencing, Vespertine has sprung to magical life. It’s almost a treatise on the last-minute fix.
So now it’s down to me to figure out what was wrong with the first version I heard, and what the “corrected” version got right. The overall tone has remained pretty much the same, which constitutes in either version a far cry from her previous work. Over a stunningly diverse solo career (since leaving the Sugarcubes, who didn’t deserve her anyway), Bjork has dabbled in quirky dance music, big band revival tunes and gorgeous, flowing pop. Her Telegram all but revitalized the remix album, and then she broke astounding new ground with Homogenic, her “technorchestral” album. There she combined the pitter-patter of electronic drums and noise with a full, sweeping orchestra to dramatic effect.
She then perfected and expanded that style with Selmasongs, the soundtrack to her acting debut in Dancer in the Dark. If not for a certain blond rapper with an equally impressive musical and more impressive satirical sense, she’d have captured the top spot on my list last year with a 28-minute EP. These were show tunes deconstructed and rebuilt with warped technology, and they retained the drama inherent to their filmed origins. In other words, Selmasongs was a hard act to follow.
Bjork has decided to follow it, though, with a low-key slice of ambience bereft of the melodrama she’s brought to just about every project. The tidal waves of strings in “Joga” and “I’ve Seen it All” are pretty much gone, and in their place are beds of subtle electronics and acoustic harp. This record chimes as much as it shimmers, and the effect is sometimes creepy, often boring.
Or, at least, it was in the version I first heard. I equated that disc with Radiohead’s dismal Kid A, because she seemed to trade melody for atmosphere. Bjork’s never done an OK Computer, but she’s always had an innate sense of melody, and her sonic adventurousness has always been in service to the songs, not the other way around. Here, though, the beds of electronics seemed repetitive, and everything else helped to drift the material further into the ether. It didn’t help matters that the European version opens with three of the most aimless and atmospheric numbers. In fact, you have to wade through five meandering tunes to get to the first one with a real compositional hook, “Hidden Place.”
The U.S. version wisely finds “Hidden Place” in the leadoff spot. This is the sort of tune that made Homogenic such a keeper. Bjork’s unconventionally appealing voice whorps and whirls about a knock-em-dead chorus laced with orchestration. “Hidden Place” exemplifies what I find most admirable about Bjork: she pushes the boundaries of technology’s place in pop music without forsaking the very things that make her music pop. Unfortunately, much of Vespertine comes down on the wrong side of that equation. The five aimless pieces that open the version I first heard are all on the U.S. version, most under different names and with somewhat different mixes, and all buried deep within the album.
Those that may have picked up the European pre-release version, by the way, may want to know which songs have been re-named. In order: “Blueprint” is now “Pagan Poetry,” “New” is now “Heirloom,” “Crave” is now “An Echo, A Stain,” and “Mouth” is now “Cocoon.” They’re all considerably different-sounding on the U.S. release as well.
Truthfully, the new version isn’t a dramatic departure from the original I heard. Why, then, do I find it so much more acceptable?
For starters, despite what some people may believe about the listener’s prerogative to choose the order in which he or she hears an artist’s work, the sequencing of an album does matter. The European Vespertine saddles the weakest, most ungrounded tracks next to each other, and it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate between one harp-filled dollop of ambience and another. The U.S. version is varied and more complete, with poppier numbers interspersed between meandering ones. Original opening track “Aurora” now effectively bridges the new instrumental “Frosti” and the orchestrated ballad “An Echo, A Stain.” The new sequencing adds to the sense that Vespertine is a finished, inseparable work.
The judicious addition of terrifically melodic new tracks also comes down in the new version’s favor. The samey-sounding “Our Hands” is gone from the original release, and in its place is a lovely winner called “It’s Not Up to You.” That song is third, following “Hidden Place” and the lilting, sexually explicit “Cocoon,” making for a much more invigorating first quarter. Wading through the rest of the record suddenly seems a more attractive prospect.
All this talk of sequencing is really only interesting to audiophiles like me, though. The rest of you are probably only interested in how good the music is. Well, it’s an unfortunate step down from her last two masterpieces, in either version. The drama, the overriding sense of significance, has been bled out, and the sonic palette is a little less interesting here. Vespertine is a darker, creepier piece of work than anything she’s done, but it’s somehow not as satisfying. Still, in its new permutation, the record is much more vibrant, and a couple more spins should convince me that it’s worthy of at least the bottom half of the Top 10 List.
Vespertine does settle for atmosphere over melody a few more times than I’m comfortable with, but it never slips into space filler, and in its new sequence, the atmospheres really complement each other. While it would be far-fetched to consider it a great record, it wouldn’t be so far off the mark to call it Kid A done right. That’s kind of noteworthy right there.
See you in line Tuesday morning.