How Björk's Vespertine became my hidden place
Written for Cocoon
It’s the little things. As sad as it sounds, getting the email from uni back in March that classes had been cancelled was honestly the high point of my year. I’d been feeling run down for quite a while, desperately needing a break, and exam season hadn’t even started yet. I love a pint at Palms (followed invariably by a piss-up at Sneaky’s) more than anyone, but the thought of taking some time off from everyone sounded like a dream as well. A few weeks at home – which is all I thought it’d be – would give me a chance to catch up on revision and sort my life out.
I’m really good at lying to myself.
I’ve seen a litany of articles and Twitter threads about how no one should feel guilty for not being productive during lockdown, and that even just keeping it together right now is an accomplishment. That doesn’t make it any easier when a friend tells you about a new job they’ve landed, or a coursemate brags about handing in an assignment early. It feels like I’ve done absolutely fuck all over the last three months except play Tomb Raider, watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? reruns and buy shit I don’t need with my SAAS loan. You’d think as a music journo, I’d have at least cleared the pathetically low bar of reviewing a new album or two, but as lockdown has dragged on (and on and on), I’ve sought only the comfort of music I know and love. In April, as a reward for handing in a uni essay – three days late, but whatever – I bought a special edition white vinyl of my favourite record: Vespertine by Björk.
It’s an album that doesn’t really stand out amongst her prolific discography. It isn’t as experimental as Medúlla, as grandiose as Homogenic or as singularly devastating as Vulnicura. It hasn’t got the bigband jazz instrumentals of Post or the IDM beats of Biophilia. It didn’t revolutionise pop like Debut or divide the critics like Volta. Rather, Vespertine is Björk’s most low-key and insular creation. It’s an album about the freedom and luxury of being alone. “I thrive best hermit style/With a beard and a pipe,” she sings on ‘Unison’. I feel that.
I was drowning in Glasgow, and the first few weeks back home were a lifeline. For a little while at least, my anxieties drifted away as the lush soundscapes of Vespertine filled the house. “Seek solace/ Sanctuary/In that hidden place,” Björk murmurs on its opening track over a mesmeric melodic loop.
Many of the album’s sounds were sampled from around her home: ice crackles beneath the metallic, music box tones of ‘Frosti’, which dissolve into the ASMR-like crunch of footsteps in snow on ‘Aurora’; the shuffling of a deck of cards forms the basis of the gossamer beat on ‘Cocoon’. These intimate, idiosyncratic ‘microbeats’ captured the quiet bliss of those early lockdown days.
The barrage of bad news and death stats every night at six pulled me back down to Earth. My anxiety is bad at the best of times; now, every time my mum goes out to the shops, I’m convinced she’ll catch corona and die. As I’ve settled into my new normal of empty days and sleepless nights, I’ve found solace in the insularity of Vespertine. Primal wails shatter the icy percussion of ‘Pagan Poetry’, where Björk declares “I’m going to keep me all to myself”; in the song’s haunting call-and-response coda, she screams into pillow-soft harp plucks as if no one can hear. On the quieter ‘Undo’, she sings with a feathered touch about how “it’s not meant to be a struggle” over cascading strings and electronics. It’s probably the song I’ve revisited most lately, just to hear that line over and over.
Even the novelty of having no social obligations wore off fast. A few weeks back, I read an article in The Guardian about how lockdown has been easy for introverts. Bullshit. I miss early-morning venting sessions with my uni pals. I miss drunken dancefloor kisses and Uber rides home. Vespertine is Björk’s most romantic album – it’s a record about being alone, but being alone with someone else – and the gentle sensuality of songs like ‘Cocoon’ and ‘Sun In My Mouth’ has me longing for a physical connection. (Zoom doesn’t cut it).
Although lockdown is beginning to ease, it’s gonna be a while before we’re going to bars with friends or making out with strangers in clubs again. In its final moments, Vespertine offers a reminder of what we have to look forward to: “Let’s unite tonight/We shouldn’t fight/Embrace you tight”.
As it has been so many times before, the album is my port in this storm. On the mornings when I can’t face getting out of bed, Björk’s shrouded, uninhabited soundscapes are a hideaway. Sampling the sounds of domestic life and layering them over fluttering strings and unearthly vocal melodies, Vespertine is an escapist fantasy rooted in the comforts of home.
Outside my window, the world is slowly waking from its slumber: neighbours are emerging from their houses to sit in the sun, and the buzz of traffic is growing louder each passing day. In the meantime, I’ll stick on Vespertine and retreat into that safe, familiar, hidden place.repeat