Björk's eighth is dense, challenging, powerful stuff
And so, and so, and so. When I woke up this morning, I was expecting a day of working, recovering from a nasty bout of flu, and just staying inside in the warmth, looking out of the window onto Njálsgata. I was certainly not expecting Björk to suddenly drop her eighth album, Vulnicura, released a couple of months early in a kind of nuclear response to the album’s recent leak. And even if I’d known it was coming, I’m not sure I’d have been prepared for it, because it’s dense, challenging, powerful stuff.
After the sprawling, wide-eyed exploration that was Biophilia, Vulnicura sees Björk turn inwards again, more so than on any album other than Vespertine. In fact, this deeply personal, emotional record could be its shadowy twin – where Vespertine described the exploration of intimacy, domesticity and harmony, Vulnicura explores the bleak and harrowing terrain of endings; heartbreak, damage, loss, and in the end, regeneration.
The album is formed of three trilogies of songs, and as well as traditional numbering, they’re also marked by their proximity to the breakup that forms the core of the record’s subject matter. Thus, track one is also labelled “nine months before,” through to track 6, which is labelled “11 months after”. The final three are not marked in this way, perhaps illustrating that, in the end, there’s a point at which one breaks away from the gravitational pull of a relationship collapse. Or, as Björk says in the statement accompanying the album’s snap-release: “there is a way out”.
The opener, Stonemilker, employs the same type of earthy orchestration heard on Jóga – the strings groan and swoon, finding a magical configuration that can draw a bodily response (social media shows that for some this might be goosebumps, adrenalin, or tears – my own first reaction was the latter). The lyrics are raw – introspective, but revealing. When Björk sings “moments of clarity are so rare / I better document this,” we’re taken to a familiar, very precise moment in which a swirling mass of emotion freezes for a moment, and we’re able to gain a new, enlightened perspective. In this case, it’s Björk realising that her relationship is suffering, and trying to comprehend why, and see a way forward: “who is open chested / and who has coagulated / who can share / and who has shut down the chances?” Stonemilker rings true in a way that few songs do – it summons up a powerful, cathartic recognition, and it ranks immediately amongst her very finest songs.
Lionsong (5 months before) begins with some twisting, tangled, processed vocals, and unfolds into a grand arrangement set over a thumping, stuttering, bassy rhythm. This one casts Björk’s lover as a transformed figure – a veteran returning from war, struggling to fit into his formerly quite natural role, and Björk’s struggle to process and accept the change. History of Touches again manages to pinpoint and capture a strange, revelatory moment in someone’s internal life. This time, it’s a late night realisation that a relationship is ending, culminating in a hallucinatory experiencing of the weight, shape, feeling and duration of two people’s time together, and the knowledge that it will soon be gone.
Black Lake (2 months after) clocks in at ten minutes, forming an epic centrepiece for Vulnicura. It’s a languid, meandering exploration of desolation and loss, talking in terms of wounds, tearing, breaking, corruption. Family (6 months after) arrives with booming, funereal drums, and is about the disintegration of a mother-father-child triangle. The lyrics hover over a buzzing drone of 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) features an insistent, relentless arrangement, and sees the slow emergence of a less distraught perspective and a tone of reconciliation: “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 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 has a palpitating rhythm, reminiscent of Hyperballad, that brings with it a kind of closure through stoicism: “when we’re broken we are whole / and when we’re whole we’re broken.”
And taken as a whole, Vulnicura meshes together orchestration, drones, electronic sound and Björk’s singular vocal into a document that runs the gamut of relationship breakdown. It’s not the most accessible of her records by any means, often built on sparse or dense passages of abstract repetition and drones – but it is amongst the most emotionally honest, and that’s saying something. That I was able to listen to it for a full five hours whilst writing with this says a lot. Vulnicura pulls off the tremendous feat of documenting and synthesizing difficult states with sophisticated emotional literacy, drawing them to the surface for a kind of catharsis. It plumbs depths that are both highly personal and totally universal, and demand further exploration.
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