‘How will I sing us out of this sorrow?’
Following eight albums that have all been conceptual to varying degrees – and have covered such themes as introversion, extraversion, the voice as a multi-instrument and musical nature via apps – it is both shocking and affecting to experience Björk’s latest subject: herself and her family.
Björk, artist Mathew Barney and their children have demonstrated ably that is possible to retain privacy no matter how big your star may be or whether a brutal media try to prick it. With Vulnicura, then, a massive rupture has occurred to the point where Björk specifies which songs on the album relate to which periods in the relationship the rot began to set in for her and Barney, who are now most definitely separated following over a decade together as a unattainable art couple.
The fact that this album appears two months earlier than its intended release date, because of a full, online leak, and with no promotional material at present, only adds to the voyeuristic tingle and brutality of the unexpected openness that Björk allows us.
There is no return to left-field pop or immediate accessibility on Vulnicura. The majority of the nine tracks are well over six minutes long, ‘Black Lake’ is just over 10, and there are surprising nods to her late ’90s material throughout. There are some gorgeous melodies here, but the album is structured – and to a large extent sounds – exactly like a classical piece. This is primarily due to the return of gigantic, stirring and occasionally violent string parts – only the shortest track does not feature an orchestra. The opening track, for example, ‘Stonemilker’, set ‘nine months before’, is lush, stately and warmly reassuring, and suggests little unrest. But the first audible line (‘moments of clarity are so rare, I’d better document this’) indicates frustration and the interruption of stability.
‘Lion Song’ opens with the kind of stacked up and distorted a capella first heard on Medulla, but this is not an indication of what follows. ‘Maybe he will come out of this (loving me), maybe he won’t, somehow I’m not too bothered either way’ is a typically poetic, plainspeaking Björk lyric and forms the sweeping yet woozy, Eastern-influenced chorus – the friendliest on the album. This is tied together by verses that are led by the string arrangements and which dip and dart broadly in a style most resembling a cautionary show tune.
‘History of Touches’ accounts the last time a couple sleep together following years of unity and togetherness. It’s probably the saddest song here and is beat-less, with ethereal but zig-zagging synths supporting an accepting and almost disconcertingly confident vocal.
‘Black Lake’ is the eye of the storm: ‘my shield is gone, my protection is taken’. Lines are sung in a plaintive, near-defeated way, before string notes are drawn out for almost 30 seconds to seemingly allow Björk to recompose and continue. Straightforward songwriting and exquisite orchestration dominate, and at one point beats threaten to take the mood elsewhere, but such interruptions are premature and silenced by violins. Devastating but restrained, it’s Björk playing to her all strengths.
The second half of the album, songs that deal predominately with the post-relationship period, has several tortured, schizophrenic movements that are contained within the songs themselves.’Family’ and ‘Notget’ are Vulnicura‘s most difficult tracks and also provide some of its most artful and visceral moments. Fully immersed in rage, bewilderment and the almost liberating feeling of letting go of something that has ended, however paining.
‘Family’ opens with the astonishing line: ‘Is there a place that I can show my respects for the death of my family?’. It’s musically ominous, and becomes increasingly terrifying.
Both these last two songs are co-written and produced by Arca, and are where his presence is most felt. Those expecting Vulnicura to sound like an Arca record with Björk vocals will be disappointed, however. The creaking and constantly erupting beats and soundscapes, overall, still sound more or less as they always have done – like a Björk record.
The final third of the album is about recovery, friendship and moving forward. Final track ‘Quicksand’ – all luminous electronics, staccato strings and drum and bass – speaks about the future of women and the need to accept adversity as well as joy.
Volta and Biophilia, albums that immediately proceeded this, were often deliriously chaotic, cryptic and for the most part interesting, but lacked the essential emotional core that has grounded all of Björk’s work. On Vulnicura, we are again back on steady ground. With her upcoming career retrospective at the MOMA, spanning the last 20 years of her work, it is both a relief and a genuine thrill to have one of pop’s most important, explosive and influential stars making music that again matches, and in places surpasses, her best.
Björk has, as she has always done, followed her heart in order to heal herself and never has this sounded as critical as on Vulnicura. Singing her way out of sorrow is instinctual and much more than a career move – it has helped save her and for that we should be grateful.