Bjork – Vulnicura
by Mike Doub (Journalism/Psychology), published February 4th 2015
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
Before the release of Bjork’s new album Vulnicura, the Icelandic singer’s career could be split neatly into two phases: the Corporeal, followed by the Ethereal. Though her first four albums – the unimpeachable Debut, Post, Homogenic and Vespertine – didn’t lack for sonic innovation, the joy in hearing each record came from Bjork’s palpable confidence. In contrast, the subsequent three – Medúlla, Volta and Biophilia – were records that were much easier to admire than enjoy. Medúlla, the most successful of the three, faltered in its inability to surpass the novelty its exclusively a cappella arrangements, and on Biophilia conceptual ambition hobbled songs that lacked Bjork’s usual dynamic arrangements (the less said of the Timbaland-produced Volta, the better.)
Whether you attribute the failings of those three records to unfocused lyrics, or the latter to the former, that this chicken and the egg debate exists signals that something has been missing from her recent output. This component is one that often characterized Corporeal Bjork, and the state of corporeality itself: the body. Bjork’s musical creativity on her best records was always balanced by a human element, and this provided an anchor among her often experimental compositions. Her undeniable power as an emotional instrument even translates into her multimedia exploits, as with a jubilant lead performance in Lars Von Trier’s otherwise grim Dancer in the Dark. Recognizing this selling point highlights the extra pressure its absence placed on the records following Vespertine. How does one get invested in lyrics detailing the invisible strands that tie together the universe, after all?
Vulnicura bucks this trend. It’s Bjork’s most emotionally evocative record since Vespertine, and her best since as well. It also overshares on details of the same relationship that Vespertine rejoiced in, though where that album was a celebration of human connection Vulnicura mourns its absence. Vulnicura’s release follows Bjork’s split with long-time partner Matthew Barney, and the specter of their separation is laid bare across all nine of these harrowing songs. Bjork structures them in the chronological order that the break-up took place, with the fight (“Stonemilker”) leading into denial (“Lionsong”) followed by the pensive goodbye (“History of Touches”) and the ensuing crash (“Black Lake” and the rest of the album). Throughout Bjork’s directness proves to be an asset, and that these details are painted in broad strokes adds to Vulnicura’s relatability and power. This success is also indebted to the album’s layout, a feat of architectural brilliance that elevates the already-strong source material.
It’s matched by the album’s beat selection, overseen by extraterrestrial producer Arca, master of the dark arts Haxan Cloak and Bjork herself. Each artist’s fingerprints are identifiable within the overall sound of Vulnicura – Arca with his trademark skittering drums, Haxan Cloak with low-end dread, Bjork with, most noticeably, ornate string arrangements – and together the three craft a series of instrumentals that match the album’s emotional journey. On opener “Stonemilker” Bjork’s strings are front and center and take on a triumphal air as her narrator demands emotional respect from a partner. Later, “History of Touches” features an eerie instrumental that could have appeared on Arca’s excellent 2014 debut Xen. Wordless layered vocals establish a nocturnal ambiance that meshes with the scene Bjork sets of sadly lying beside her sleeping lover. The beats and strings mutate over the course of Vulnicura, matching the narrator’s increasingly unmoored state, all of which comes to a head on closer “Quicksand.” Fittingly the song’s beat is the most chaotic of the record, and over it Bjork sings of being “whole but broken,” and “broken but whole.” The subtext is clear – she’s putting the past in the past – and even amidst the clamor Bjork sells this sentiment as a revelation. It’s a testament to how great Vulnicura is that you feel the catharsis with her.
Key Tracks: “Stonemilker,” “History of Touches,” “Family”