Available on: One Little Indian
Vulnicura makes its intentions clear from the outset. “Moments of clarity are so rare,” Björk sings on the opening track, “I’d better document this”. “This” is the breakdown of her 13-year relationship with the artist Matthew Barney, and as such Vulnicura aims for total catharsis, Björk attempting to process emotional pain by recording the events surrounding it in unflinching detail, down to the chronological markers noted in the accompanying booklet (“four months before”, “four months after”, and so on). Even so, she leaves a hint of unresolved mystery. What exactly does “Vulnicura” mean? The clue lies in a pair of lines on ‘Notget’: “Don’t remove my pain / It is my chance to heal”. In vulnerability lies the cure. It’s a brave approach for anyone to take, let alone an artist known for deploying rich imagery and ambiguity, and the result is stark and deeply affecting.
Arriving in the wake of Biophilia, Vulnicura feels especially personal. Where the Biophilia project was an ambitious undertaking that included interactive exhibitions, series of remixes and an app album that tied in with its themes of science, nature, innovation and technology, Vulnicura zooms right in on humanity itself. On one hand, the themes of Vulnicura couldn’t be any more different from Biophilia, but on the other, they complement one another nicely, the recent album an outward look at the physical world in all its dazzling detail and the second an examination of the emotions that sometimes seem to overpower our physical selves.
In almost any other context, some of Vulnicura’s lyrics might seem too on the nose. There’s no trace of ambiguity in lines such as “Show me emotional respect / I have emotional needs” (‘Stonemilker’, “nine months before”), or “Maybe he will come out of this loving me / Maybe he won’t” (‘Lionsong’, “five months before”), but rather than seeming stale, they’re deeply affecting, visceral in their honesty. This is partly down to Björk’s prowess as a vocalist. On ‘Stonemilker’, her breaths are heavy, and soaring melisma jars against clipped staccato syllables. The unaccompanied, unprocessed harmonies that open ‘Lionsong’ are stark and emotionally raw as Björk contemplates love slipping through her fingers, powerless but clinging to the faint hope that “maybe he will come out of this”. ‘History of Touches’ charts the decline in her sexual relationship, frank yet moving with the images of “every single fuck… in a wondrous time lapse” and “every single archive compressed into a second” delivered in appropriately downtrodden cadences.
For all its emotional honesty, Vulnicura can feel abstracted from itself, an effect that also helps prevent the distressing lyrics from ever seeming pedestrian or obvious. It’s as if by documenting the breakdown of her relationship in chronological order, Björk is addressing the events systematically, finding solace in the act of compartmentalising them, and acknowledging that the process is every bit as important as the finished result. It’s unsurprising, then, that the album’s main standout track – and to my mind among the finest songs in Björk’s whole catalogue – documents the immediate emotional fallout after the end of the relationship. (Well, not quite immediate – the chronological note in the accompanying booklet is “two months after”, a devastating detail in its own right, suggesting as it does eight solid weeks of fathomless pain.)
‘Black Lake’ is a document of searing emotional agony, Björk so overcome with pain that she describes herself as “blind”, “drowning” and “torn apart”. The beats are a muffled pulse that join a sparse string section late into the track, and the effect is of unbearable tension. Dynamics rise and fall, and the beats gather momentum alongside towering strings as Björk shifts the blame from herself – “did I love you too much?” – to level the damning accusation, “you betrayed your own heart”. It all leads up to the revelation in the album’s volta track ‘Family’, with its suggestion, counter to the “no hope” of ‘Black Lake’, that there can be healing. Opening with howls about her broken family against a bleak backdrop of appropriately crumbling beats, it grows into a disjointed piece of scraping strings and newly defiant vocals, all wedged into the mix at odd angles, as Björk finally reaches the conclusion that “a monument of love” for her child will help bring about her own redemption.
Sonically, Vulnicura is comparable to early albums Homogenic or Vespertine, something immediately apparent from the sweep of gorgeous strings that opens ‘Stonemilker’. Gone are the novel instruments of Volta and Biophilia, and in their place is a refined attention to composition and arrangement. Arca is Björk’s principal collaborator on Vulnicura, and it’s testament to her often underrated talent for shaping producers’ skills to her own ends that the crunchy beats which in his own music often sound sterile work so well with her vocal and instrumental arrangements, lending them an alien dimension entirely of a piece with the album’s sense of something vital being ripped out. They’re perhaps at their most effective on ‘Notget’, where a martial rumble of bass drums and cold metallic beats are the perfect foil to Björk’s rolled “r”s, stretches of sibilance, rattles of breath and seemingly endless dental fricatives as she extends the word “death” over several discomfiting seconds.
The beats do occasionally threaten to overpower the action at the centre of songs. ‘Atom Dance’, which features Antony – the only other vocalist on the album – has more than enough going on without little clusters of percussion exploding haphazardly. Fluttering percussion and glitches also make ‘Mouth Mantra’ feel less focused than Vulnicura’s best tracks, but ‘Quicksand’ is more successful, its heavy percussive backdrop forceful and driving, and in line with its theme of recovery as Björk redeploys the image of the black lake, now cast as a source of life rather than death: “Locate her black lake / The steam from this pit / Will form a cloud / For her to live on”. On the other hand, there’s nothing to fault about the contribution of The Haxan Cloak, whom Björk drafted in to mix the album. His preference for heavy low end is welcome on Vulnicura, adding even more gravity to Björk’s arrangements and the already overwhelming lyrics.
Björk is hardly a pop artist in the conventional sense – quite the contrary – but her best albums have always contained at least one standout hit. That Vulnicura is lacking in one, with no equivalent of ‘Pagan Poetry’, ‘Jöga’, ‘Venus As A Boy’ or ‘All Is Full Of Love’, is telling of both her development and of the album’s emotional density. Its comparatively conventional sound may bring to mind earlier albums, but Vulnicura never feels like a rehashing of old ideas. Rather, it’s as if, as she sings on ‘Black Lake’, Björk is “a glowing shiny rocket / Returning home”. As such, Vulnicura is better taken as a companion to her earlier work than a step backwards from the innovations of Medulla, Volta and Biophilia. It may be her way of relating and dealing with a narrative that is hers alone, but the outcome is Björk’s most fully realised, accessible record in years.