Published February 17, 2015
Björk albums usually appear with quite a fanfare. But ‘Vulnicura’, the bleak and wintery eighth album of her adult solo career, arrived somewhat prematurely. Following an early leak, it was snap-released onto iTunes within days—the sudden appearance of an ominous monument, like the inky black monolith of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. But that’s where the similarity ends, because unlike that glassy, ambiguous oblong, ‘Vulnicura’ is nothing if not revealing.
The album charts the decline and dissolution of a significant and intense long-term relationship, the beginnings of which were similarly documented on 2001’s ‘Vespertine’. In fact, this record could be its shadowy twin—where ‘Vespertine’ (think “Hidden Place” and “Cocoon”) described the tentative, breathless excitement of a new relationship, ‘Vulnicura’ explores the harrowing terrain of its collapse, over a decade later. In a strikingly brave artistic (coping?) strategy, Björk has mined the darkest moments of her breakup, sculpting them into a gruelling account of the cycle of loss—“it has a stubborn clock attached to it,” as she said on Facebook—and the painfully slow process of regeneration that follows.
The album is grouped into three trilogies of songs, each song marked by its proximity to the breakup (that stubborn clock expressed as “9 months before,” “11 months after”). The first three come before the fact, sad missives written from inside the relationship’s decline; the second three chart the darkest days following the separation. The final group of tracks show glimpses of ascent and resolution—the point at which someone begins to break away from the gravitational pull of a relationship collapse. Or, as Björk says in the statement accompanying the album’s release: “there is a way out.”
Taken as a whole, ‘Vulnicura’ meshes together orchestration, deftly programmed beats and electronic sound with Björk’s singular vocal, creating a document that runs the gamut of relationship breakdown. It’s not her most accessible record by any means—often built on sparse or dense passages and unpredictable, non-linear song structure—but it is amongst her most emotionally honest, making for a listen that’s both generous and demanding.
Most of all, ‘Vulnicura’ pulls off the feat of visualising difficult transient states with a keen-eyed emotional literacy, teasing them to the surface and turning them over like artefacts to be examined. The effect is something simultaneously personal and universal, making ‘Vulnicura’ a sort of Rosetta Stone for examining and, perhaps, understanding heartbreak.
Track By Track
There are “moments of clarity” captured throughout ‘Vulnicura’ that many will relate to. “Stonemilker” talks about telling feelings of disquiet, and the slow realisation that something is wrong; of needs no longer being met, of cracks forming and widening. “Lion Song” develops the theme, charting a couple’s drift into terminal malaise—the feeling of new distances appearing between two people, and seeing a partner through new, harsher eyes. “History Of Touches” documents that poignant, painfully recognisable realisation of sharing a bed with someone for the final time. It’s like someone else’s relationship flashing before your eyes.
“Black Lake” (“2 months after”) clocks in at ten minutes, forming an epic centrepiece for ‘Vulnicura’, and the hopeless nadir of the breaking up process. It’s a languid, meandering exploration of desolation and soul-ache, talking in terms of wounds, tearing, breaking, corruption, and punctuated by torturous thirty-second drones. “Family” (“6 months after”) arrives with funereal drums, and is about mourning the disintegration of a mother-father-child triangle. The lyrics hover over buzzing strings, evolving into a neurotic tangle of confused notes; it swells into a wall of orchestration before broadening out into an echoing, evocative outro. “Notget” (“11 months after,” and the sixth and final song to feature this kind of timestamp) features an insistent, relentless arrangement, and sees the slow emergence of a less distraught perspective: “if i regret us / i’m denying my soul to grow / don’t remove my pain / it is my chance to heal.”
After a page in the digital album booklet in which Björk is shown starting to pull the wound on her chest closed, the light breaks through fully on the lively “Atom Dance,” which culminates in Björk duetting with Antony Hegarty over a skittering rhythm. “Mouth Mantra” is a dense mixture of abstract rhythm and insistent cello and violin, and sees Björk ready to move on: “i have followed a path that took sacrifices / now i sacrifice this scar / can you cut it off?” “Quicksand” is a fitting closer, rebooting a little-known track by young Irish producer Spaces and building on its palpitating rhythm to conjure a sense of stoic closure: “when we’re broken we are whole / and when we’re whole we’re broken.” It cuts off mid-flow, over as suddenly as ‘Vulnicura’ arrived.
BJÖRK’S FOLK MUSIC
Björk has a way of messing up our plans. We were all set with a February-feature when she surprise dropped her new album, out of the blue. And, you know, it’s a really goddamn great album.