Björk albums tend to focus either on a particular approach to sound, or a particular theme or idea. Medúlla, for example, used the possibilities of the human voice as a springboard for inspiration, whilst Biophilia found her exploring the relationship between technology and nature. On her very best albums, she has found a total unity of form and content. The best example of this is arguably Vespertine, for which the album’s minimal combination of electronics and acoustic instruments (especially Zeena Parkins’ harp), along with the work of a choir, provided a paradoxical combination of ice and warmth that proved apposite for her compelling portrait of intimacy. It comes as something of a joy to discover that Vulnicura, rush released this week two months ahead of schedule in response to an unauthorised leak, finds Björk once again exploring deeply personal concerns.
If Vespertine detailed the rapture of a relationship’s blossoming, Vulnicura documents, often in excoriating detail, its slow decline. The cover image of Björk with a gaping chest wound provides a visual representation of the theme. Also, a number of the tracks are placed in a chronology with an explanatory note (nine months before, five months before, &C.). Like Vespertine, it also finds a fruitful sonic route through its narrative journey. This is very much Björk with strings, to the extent that its beats (provided mostly by Arca, once by The Haxan Cloak) are mostly subtle and unobtrusive, supporting rather than defining the character of the music. Sometimes, they are most notable for their complete absence (as on the glorious History Of Touches). In some ways this is her most uncompromising album too – the songs are long and elaborate, and she refuses to shy away from anger or confrontation as part of the process of coming to terms with the situation.
It begins in a way that is affecting, romantic and yet also almost serene. Perhaps knowingly, Stonemilker echoes Joga with its slow tempo, poignant melody, string arrangement and its references to ‘emotional needs’. It’s one of her strongest vocal performances – one where she really takes command of the song but also finds moments of controlled vulnerability. The song captures a couple in different places (“Who is open and who is shut up?”), now finding communicating to be problematic. The string arrangement brings forward a sense of aching, longing and uncertainty creeps in – presaging the devastating events that are about to unfold. Vulnicura’s first couple of tracks seem to detail that period of concealed trouble, perhaps even complacency – where everything seems fine even as doubts start to creep in. By Lionsong (five months before), a degree of either ambivalence or complacency is setting in (“Maybe he will come out of this, maybe he won’t/somehow I’m not too bothered either way”). The music starts to become more purposefully wayward, as if to elucidate wavering hearts and minds.
Lyrically, Björk’s writing is at its strongest and most moving. Her idiosyncratic use of English remains one of her greatest charms, from a peculiar and brilliant synaesthesia on Lionsong (“I smell declarations of solitude” or “Should I throw oil on one of his moods?”). Her writing about the erotic and sensual life has always been disarmingly honest and beautiful, and this is no less the case as she captures the last gasp of intimacy on the extraordinary History Of Touches (three months before). It’s still surprising to hear her using profanity (“Every single fuck we had together/is in a wondrous time lapse/with us here at this moment”), although it feels completely justified – an almost sacred moment of intimacy now being intruded upon by distance, maybe even anger and bitterness. The accompanying synthesisers dart and dance around the issue, brilliantly interacting with Björk’s vocal.
The ten minutes of Black Lake (two months after) are the album’s emotional centrepiece and its musical peak. It details the wounds of separation, and also offers some devastating moral condemnation too (“Family was always our sacred mutual mission/which you abandoned”). The first section finds Björk accompanied simply by strings – her voice at its most exposed and clear. Gradually, electronic beats creep in. Briefly, they threaten to overwhelm the proceedings, before the arrangement once again takes a touching retreat. Then there is a sudden injection of pace and volume again as Björk singe of being a “glowing shiny rocket returning home”. The form and arrangement of the song brilliantly captures the ebb and flow of extreme feelings in the aftermath of a separation.
The album’s second half is darker (in terms of harmony, sound and mood), more questioning and more challenging. The poignant and romantic sadness of the album’s earlier stages gives way to starker sound worlds and more undulating and unusual melodies. Typically for Björk, this is demanding music that requires some unpicking. Family begins with an ominous drone, as Björk mourns the death of the family unit. It goes on to feature the album’s most radical string arrangement, with strafing, darting cello in the unconventional manner of Arthur Russell. The melody veers a little towards the opaque (or at least elusive), but it is a brilliant and imaginative exploration of the relationship between musical textures and feeling. Notget might be the album’s most bewildering and enchanting song, as Björk’s vocal is pitted against jarring, dissonant organ chords and short, sharp bowed strings. The song seems to suggest that the first step towards resolution after a separation is the need not to regret the entire relationship. It’s a beautiful and important idea and, crucially, an outward reaching one too.
Atom Dance is an angular, folk-tinged piece of digital ballet, with returning guest vocalist Antony Hegarty at his most restrained and elegant. “No one is a lover alone,” Björk suggests, her voice weaving around the insistent pizzicato strings that provide the piece’s motif. This is a theme that will recur at the end of the song as Antony sings beautifully. Unlike his role on Volta’s Dull Flame Of Desire, Antony plays a much more supportive role here, part of the track’s overall blend and poise. It takes a while, in fact, to identify that usually immediately recognisable voice. Whilst that earlier track seemed to start grandly and ascend yet further, this seems more light and nimble.
Mouth’s Mantra, a collaboration with Spaces, is the one track that doesn’t quite seem to fit here. Whilst its string arrangement has a quiet menace that might align it with the overall sound here, the beats are much more intrusive and forceful, utilising what almost seem to be video game effects, darting off in all directions. The vocal harmonies are typically striking, but it feels as if its adding entirely different elements in to the mix a little late in the day. The closing Quicksand is also a good deal more percussive, but it has a dazzling, fluttering quality that works well. What ties these tracks together is Björk’s longstanding tendency to juxtapose sustained notes in a melody against rapid-fire, pattering electronic beats – almost as if the rhythm of the melody and the rhythm driving the accompaniment are at odds with each other.
Vulnicura feels, overall, as if it is one of Björk’s most successful albums, one where she mostly finds sonic strategies that are well matched with her concepts and themes. It also suggests that, should she want to break further away from her long-established comfort zone and jettison electronics, she could make a similarly radical and refreshing album purely using acoustic instruments. Whilst the break-up album is hardly the most original or novel of concepts, Björk’s great skill here is to take material that could become self-indulgent or introspective and render it warm and universal. It’s also a work about family bonds and how fragile they can turn out to be. This is an album in which to find solace, healing, empathy and understanding. Björk is a great artist – but she’s also a human being.
The CD and vinyl release date of this album remains 30 March 2015