Listen to this track by Icelandic former Sugarcubes frontwoman turned electronica art pop maven Björk. It’s “Hidden Place”, the first single as taken from her highly acclaimed 2001 album Vespertine, released in the summer of that year. The album would go onto many a best-of-the-decade list, and stand as a significant change in artistic direction for its author.
The record was created while Björk was engaged in the creation of the soundtrack for the movie she starred in at the time, that being Lars Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark. The movie was screened at the Cannes film festival in 2000, where Björk won an award for Best Actress. Along with the critical accolades however, her experience on the shoot was purportedly tense. Von Trier’s tight control of the project rankled against her own creative impulses in the lead role. As a result, Vespertine could be looked upon as an equal and opposite reaction to the action of starring in her first (and possibly last) feature film with another artist in Von Trier at the helm.
This wasn’t just about control. It was also about tone. In the movie, Björk’s character Selma after whom the companion album Selmasongs is named is an extroverted and driven character who becomes the tragic victim of circumstance. If this song has a character at the center of it, then she could be considered Selma’s opposite; a langourously relaxed, insular, and contented person. This is due to another force in Björk’s life at the time; new love.
From the glare of Cannes and out from under the eye and control of a director, it’s no wonder that Björk turned inward, and focused on her then-new relationship with visual artist Matthew Barney. That’s a big part of what this song is about. It’s a love song. But, it also has to do with how relationships can alter perceptions of one’s surroundings. The “Hidden place” that gives this song its title is that sense of location that an intimate relationship sometimes suggests when you’re in the presence of that other person. It’s an emotional space. But while you’re in it, it feels physical, too. This is a difficult concept to communicate to someone who hasn’t experienced it directly.
Maybe this is why Björk decided to forgo the boisterous and beat-centric feel of her previous records for a markedly downbeat and more sonically ethereal approach. She wanted to give the micro-emotions that sit inside the larger ones of her emotional state a bit of room to breathe. In the place of beats, she presents us with captured and treated sounds that are only just within the realm of the musical, gently brushing against the edges of an ambient collage of non-musical sound. This song is one of many on the record that are so subtle, and so minimalist in their anatomy, they’re almost not there at all but for Björk’s whisper of a vocal that can be heard at their centre.
Like the themes of the song, this is insular music coming up from the depths, and gently flowing out. This might explain the video, with liquid flowing out of the singer’s mouth and nose, like emotions that can’t be contained. It’s this kind of thematic precision as matched with the music that gained her some of the best reviews of her career, with Vespertine as a whole included in so many end of year, and end of decade lists. It would certainly represent a new artistic avenue for Björk, known even then as a singular and idiosyncratic artist already.
Björk is an active artist today. You can learn more about her at bjork.com.
[Update: Oct 15, 2017: This article from Rolling Stone casts Björk’s experience on Dancer In The Dark in an even darker place, specifically citing her allegations of unwanted sexual advances on the part of the director toward her. This is still the world we live in, Good People. And no wonder she made a record that reclaimed her own sexuality so artfully.]