Seconds
Bjork – Cocoon



stylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.

Björk's new album Volta has been heralded as her "return to rhythm," with the implication that the previous two releases had faltered due to the absence of hard beats. While it's true that the cheeky club-pop flair of "Big Time Sensuality" and the menacing techno elements of "Army of Me" are highlights of her early solo career, she's always excelled at softer, more spacious songs as well: the dreamlike "All Is Full of Love," for instance, or the chilled-out "Possibly Maybe." What 2001's Vespertine does, then, is merely push the boundaries of that aesthetic, and perhaps no song illustrates the way Björk privileges the intimate on that record better than "Cocoon."

"Cocoon" begins with a simple, haunting melodic pattern that's in fact not entirely dissimilar from the one used in "Possibly Maybe": both are muffled and echoey, as though played underwater. Then comes a gently skittering beat, a string of taps and clicks. When Björk's voice is introduced, though, there's something different about it. It's not like she isn't quiet elsewhere in her oeuvre, but even in her tiniest whisper, she conveys a sense of conscious restraint, like she could burst into a full-throated growl at any time. Here, she sounds thin and wobbly.

"Who would have known," she manages, "that a boy like him would have entered me lightly, restoring my blisses?" The quavering vocals, we soon come to understand, are an expression of pleasure from a truly vulnerable state, the dizziness of sexual release. If she's not in control as she usually is, it's because she's given herself over to this transcendent union.

Björk began dating her current partner, Matthew Barney, while working on Vespertine, and the thrills of new love are in fact apparent throughout the record. While she has never shied away from the sensual in her lyrics, there are parts of Vespertine that are downright erotic, and as the second track on the album, "Cocoon" sets this tone. (Much was made of "Sun in My Mouth" having been adapted from an e.e. cummings poem, but his playful body-centered lyricism fits in perfectly.)

The key moment comes about three minutes into the song. After Björk wondrously describes an episode of sleep blurring into sex, everything drops out except her breathy repetition of "Who would have known?" As she attempts to stretch out the phrase, her high, wandering voice breaks more than once, and each gasping inhalation that surrounds the unsteady pitch is amplified at its same level. It lasts only about 15 seconds, but in context, this is heavy breathing on par with Donna Summer (and probably better, since it isolates the nakedness, rather than burying it).

It's tempting to claim that the climax of "Cocoon" is Björk's way of casting off the shackles of technology and embracing raw humanity. Compare the cover of Homogenic, in which she looks like a straitjacketed android, to that of Vespertine, in which she lies open-mouthed and supine like a pin-up girl. But even though her next album would do away with everything but the human voice, Björk has always sought to challenge the dichotomy of organic versus electronic (for lyrical evidence, see "Modern Things”), and in a recent Pitchfork interview, she notes that Vespertine was partially inspired by the fact that she had "just gotten [her] first laptop, and it was very much about the static universe of the Internet, and all the beats clicking and everything whispered."

Whereas Björk's earlier material may have relied upon big industrial-produced beats and communal experience (Debut spawned actual club hits), Vespertine is a representation of the digital age. Its rhythms are quick and miniaturized, like wireless networks or cell-phone photos, and its encounter with the listener is more private, like plugging headphones into an iPod.

And even though those 15 seconds of "Cocoon" are a cappella, the thrill I get from eavesdropping on Björk's breathing reminds me of digital video's capacity to capture intimacy. There are the striking lingering close-ups of Laura Dern in David Lynch's recent Inland Empire, for instance, and the swiftly penetrating handheld movements in the millennial-era Dogme 95 films (including Dancer in the Dark, which Björk starred in a year before Vespertine); the stark and spontaneous vérité style that's particularly conducive to digital video allows for, and maybe encourages, voyeurism.

"Cocoon" probably isn't even the best song on the album, but as a depiction of the erotic, as well as a realization of how such depictions are always mediated, it's unparalleled.


By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2007-05-18
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