When’s the last time you heard music that was so potent with truth and terrible, gut-wrenching beauty that it broke your heart? That’s far too long. Björk’s Vulnicura is here to shatter it in a million pieces, but in the end you will be thankful for the journey. On her eighth proper solo album the singular Icelandic enchantress reminds you why you fell in love with her music in the first place.
As you may have read, the album was released months ahead of schedule due to a very premature leak, so instead of having people listening to a poor audio rip for months, she put it out on iTunes so people could get the full experience. Listening to it now it’s obvious why you’d want this album in full quality. It’s subtle, complex and absolutely mandatory headphones listening. It’s also possible that the incredible Pitchfork interview caught your attention, so you know what makes this album so special.
This is a chronological journey through the dissolution of a relationship. You might call it a breakup album, but that is far too reductive for what this is. It wasn’t written after all was said and done in the name of anger and frustration. No, this starts nine months before the end, when she gets the feeling that something isn’t right. “Stonemilker” aurally lives in the same universe as “All Is Full of Love,” but whereas once the simple sentiments in that song sufficed, we now feel doubt in the gorgeous strings and tender beat underneath her vocals. The emotional distance is palpable as her attempts to get her partner to open up about his feelings are likened to milking a stone.
“Lionsong” continues the feeling of agony at the uncertainty of the relationship as she “demands clarity” but she’s still holding out hope that just maybe, they can still make it work. However, by “History of Touches” she’s accepted the doomed nature of her marriage and chooses to instead focus on all the good times and moments of intimacy, holding on to those moments in these terrible times. In both songs, as is the case with most songs on this album, the arrangements are sparse. There are tender string arrangements for all of the songs, written by Björk herself, and the subtlest of beats courtesy of rising star producers Arca and Haxan Cloak, which exist solely to punctuate the rhythm of her story; there are no toe-tappers or club-bangers here.
“Black Lake” is the centerpiece of the album, clocking in at an impressive 10 minutes. It’s the rawest of nerves, much like the album cover itself, where her chest is split open, with her innermost being exposed. As far as album covers as mission statements go, it’s an obvious one, but works to great affect. “I am one wound, my pulsating body, suffering being,” she laments. The 10 minute run time flies by as you are captivated, gripped the sound of this woman pouring out her aching soul to you.
After that pain-riddled and accusatory journey things become more reflective in “Family” as she discusses the death of her family unit of mother, father and child. This is a track that affects you differently depending on your life experiences. If you have children, then you will likely be affected by the idea of your happy family ceasing to exist, and even if you’re the child of divorce, you will understand the feeling. If not, you can certainly empathize, but for someone such as myself who has experienced neither in life, it’s a little more abstract.
“Notget” starts with string patterns reminiscent of traditional Japanese music as Björk is further along in the grieving process, where she sees all the pain and misery she’s gone through as an important step in healing. She contrasts that with his apparent sense of regret at the whole relationship. It’s almost as if you can hear her growing emotionally in the song, as she realizes for herself the age-old cliché of it being better to have love and lost than to have never loved at all, yet phrasing it in the wonderfully weird and poignant way that she can.
Acceptance of the whole rotten situation is on the way in “Atom Dance” as she urges herself to “let this ugly wound breathe” and “dance towards transformation” as she illustrates perfectly the fear that comes with emotional self-actualization. This song also contains the captivating vocals of Antony Hegarty. He actually gets the honor of singing some of the most insightful lyrics in the song, blending in wonderfully. It’s much more satisfying than his guest turn on 2007’s “Dull Flame of Desire” on her Volta album.
The penultimate track, “Mouth Mantra” gives us a break from the intense narrative and instead is much more abstract in its lyrics, generally talking about feelings like her throat was stuffed up during all of this tragedy and making a vow to change as beats skitter and explode in a way heavier than any previous moment on the album. This song can be seen as gathering of strength and renewal of resolve. The instrumentation is so enjoyable that for the only time on this album you can take an emotional break and just enjoy—but you’d be cheating yourself of the full journey this album offers if you do.
Not wanting to overstay its welcome after over 50 minutes of soul-bearing, “Quicksand” sports the most fun beat of the album as she stands triumphant. She’s come through the whole ordeal stronger, realizing that even when she’s whole she is broken, and vice versa. It is our flaws and damage that makes us the unique person we are. She then encourages all of us to step into beams of sunlight and embrace the beauty of life. It’s supposed to be the uplifting end to the album, but even here there’s an intensity that betrays the singer’s serious emotional investment even when it comes to resolving to be happy.
Now that the journey’s over, where do we stand? As a longtime Björk listener, this is easily her most cohesive and satisfying work since the intimate and alluring Vespertine. Is it a “return to form?” That’s a difficult question since she’s never stayed in one place too long. But no, these aren’t pop songs. They are avant garde explorations of relationships and family, set to heady string arrangements and at times aimless yet still enjoyable beats. But if you’ve made is this far and are still a fan of this incredible woman with a voice and delivery like no other, you owe it to yourself to give this, her most personal album, a listen. Or twenty. This is heartbreak in its purest musical form and it’s a wonder to behold.
Written by Jarad Matula
OurVinyl | Associate Editor