In Brief: While its lyrics chronicle the dissolution of a long-term relationship and the beginning of the healing process afterward, the music heard on Vulnicura goes back even farther than that, serving up twisted reflections of nearly every record Björk has made up to this point. It’s slow-moving, cinematic, and at times downright unsettling, but the highly relatable subject matter pulls it all together more convincingly than anything Björk has put out since 2001’s Vespertine – an album which could be considered Vulnicura‘s reflection in the mirror.
Björk is one of those “high-concept” artists who I respect for taking such an unorthodox approach to music, but whose work I tend to appreciate the most when I can relate to what she seems to have been feeling when she was writing a song. On paper, the idea of dedicating an entire album to the exploration and manipulation of the human voice (Medúlla) or the relationship between man and machine, as visualized in a series of iPad apps (Biophilia) seems fascinating; in practice, it led to highly inconsistent recordings where the idea sometimes took over the creative process to the point where the listener’s ability to connect to the actual songs underneath suffered for it. I’m not even sure I understand what the heck Volta was all about, with its wild mood swings between beat-heavy bangers and moodier, classical leaning experiments, but for better or worse, it was a few of the songs on that record that turned me on to Björk, leading me to discover better albums from her past like Homogenic and Vespertine that remain my favorites to this day.
Vespertine is an excellent starting point for a discussion of Björk’s latest record, Vulnicura. In many ways, it seems to have been designed as a bookend to that record. Björk’s long-term relationship with artist Matthew Barney was just getting started when the material on Vespertine was being written, and its dissolution in 2013 is the central theme of Vulnicura. I wouldn’t say that the two records sound alike, per se, but due to her concentrated effort to document all of those little moments and feelings and uncertain questions about the future that arose as their relationship fell apart, the record feels more thematically and sonically unified that most of the experiments that happened in between. Despite the lean appearance of its 9-song tracklisting, Vulnicura breaks the record previously set by Vespertine as Björk’s longest album, running almost an hour, due to almost every song running six minutes or longer, with the longest one topping out at ten. That alone should tell you not to expect instantly catchy, verse/chorus structured anthems in the vein of Homogenic. There’s plenty of room to breathe – possibly even to hyperventilate depending on Björk’s mood at the time – throughout these songs. It never reaches the point of pure, unbridled anger, though at times the details she gives are uncomfortably intimate. Co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak contribute an interesting layer of harsh, chopped-up beats and unsettling strings to a few of these songs, so all of the ingredients from Homogenic and Vespertine might seem to be here on the surface, but rearranged into something unfamiliar, something befitting a scorned lover and a protective mother on the verge of an unknown and scary new chapter of her existence. Memories of her other records in between will undoubtedly be stirred up by some of the vocal experiments and the subject matter discussed on other tracks. I’d call it a Björk retrospective if the whole mood and theme of the record weren’t so drastically different from most of her other work – but then I think back to the loneliness of a song like “Unravel” or the bitter rebuke heard on “Bachelorette”, and I start to think maybe things have come full circle.
What’s tough for me to sort out as I listen to Vulnicura is how much I respect this record versus how much I actually want to listen to it. It’s unlike other entries in her discography that I might recommend to you, in that while I often find it fascinating and I think the nuts and bolts of the songs and the overall theme are really well thought-out, I don’t find myself compelled to return to it all that often. I suppose it might be the sonic equivalent of a really gut-wrenching film that you’ve watched, that you have a lot of good things to say about in terms of the artful approach taken by the filmmaker and the powerful story it had to tell, but that you sort of wince at the notion of watching again. You have to be in the right headspace in order to dwell in this pool of sadness and sorting out uncomfortable feelings for an hour, in order to better understand what Björk spent months or maybe even years going through. The reason I say that I can relate isn’t because I’ve experienced anything even close to that devastating myself, but because I think she shows wisdom in identifying the root causes even if it happened too late to fix the problems, and because amidst all of the hurt feelings and “what about me?”-type questions, she has broader concerns about what this split means for her daughter and even for future generations. her musings on this topic actually bring the record to an ambiguously hopeful, if somewhat sudden, conclusion. So I think it’s a journey worth taking alongside Björk, just not necessarily one you’re going to return to over and over again. It’ll certainly make Vespertine about ten times as bittersweet of a listening experience as it already was, but that’s still probably the Björk album I’m going to reach for more often than any other. She hasn’t outdone it, but she’s done it justice in terms of documenting the difficult ending of what that record so sweetly began.
Interestingly, the album is bookended by the two tracks that were written, arranged, and produced entirely by Björk, and those two tracks turned out to be my favorites. As unsettling and inaccessible as some of the songs on this album can get, I’d readily recommend this opening track to just about anyone looking to give this artist a try. It’s slow and sad, for sure, but the way that its sweeping strings and its cold, cavernous beats swirl together brings back memories of tracks like “Jóga” and “Unravel”, pretty much undisputable classics from Homogenic. I’d welcome this track into that pantheon of classics in a heartbeat, since its melody is so captivating and its lyrics, about trying to wring some sort of emotional relatability out of a man whose heart seems to have turned into stone, are spot-on and devastating. Her longing for “emotional respect” comes across a lot stronger than the usual pining found in breakup songs, because when you find yourself losing your emotional connection to someone you thought was your soulmate for well over a decade, that cuts way deeper than the average unrequited love ballad could ever hope to. Her longing to “find our mutual coordinates” is a nice call-back to Biophilia‘s “Mutual Core”, which I thought was one of its strongest tracks, and now I know why – because Björk is simply more compelling when she writes from personal experience rather than writing about abstract concepts from a distance. Despite being almost seven minutes long, there’s never a second where this track seems the least bit padded or threatens to wear out its welcome. It simply makes me want to have a good cry on her behalf.
This song’s chorus is presented acapella right at the beginning of the track, sung by a small choir of distorted Björks, and I’m immediately whisked back to not-so-pleasant memories of Medúlla‘s less-grounded experiments for a second, but a fairly sturdy rhythm and overall song structure show up to save the day. I’m not sure what it is that makes Björk seem to fight against the structure of her own songs at times – here, her vocals often seem to be just behind or ahead of the skittering beat, while the strings just sort of follow her melodic whims as she crams extra syllables into a few lines of each verse where they don’t quite seem to fit. Those tendencies have bugged me on most of her records going back at least as far as Vespertine, but I have to grudgingly admit that they might serve a genuine purpose on this album, portraying the battle between order and chaos that Björk’s cooler, more analytical side seems to be gradually losing as we get deeper in. Here, she’s at her most stoic, sounding rather zen about the whole thing as she muses, “Maybe he will come out of this loving me/Maybe he won’t/Somehow, I’m not too bothered either way.” She compares their relationship to taming a lion, and she seems to be coming to terms with the fact that, maybe after all these years, he still hasn’t made peace with the notion of settling down and being domesticated. That’s a pretty big deal when you consider that Vespertine, which chronicled the beginning of their relationship, was as much of a love letter to domesticity as it was to him. While this song may not be as easy to follow as “Stonemilker” as it goes off on a few of its little musical tangents, ultimately it hangs together quite well, and it’s reassuring to hear this sort of foresight from a woman who realizes that she’s quite possibly about to get her heart ripped from her chest in the months to follow.
3. History of Touches
This short song, backed by almost nothing aside from its electronically-spliced angelic choirs, feels like a spiritual cousin to Vespertine‘s “Cocoon”, in that it’s almost too intimate for me to feel comfortable overhearing her private thoughts, and yet at the same time it’s incredibly romantic and charming. It’s a simple love poem, when you get down to it, as Björk tenderly coos about waking her lover up in the middle of the night for one more tender caress, one more romp in the sack, and while that may seem like a bit of a tawdry subject for such a gentle love song (and yes, she uses the f-word here, in just about the most warm and wistful way I could ever imagine anyone using it), it works because she’s filing away all of these moments into her mental scrapbook, because those experiences have formed a bond between the two over the years, and who wouldn’t want to recall such powerful, intimate moments? She senses that this particular intimate moment together might be their last, and knowing she’s right makes the song quite tragic, because soon he will be physically gone, and those memories will be all she has left to call upon.
4. Black Lake
The sheer length of this track alone is probably enough to make some listeners brace themselves. How could ten minutes of dark, emotional ranting against a man who left her high and dry possibly be anything other than indulgent? Even Björk herself claims to be embarrassed to go back and listen to this one. She doesn’t pull her punches her, and her emotions are quite raw, though not in the way that you might think. For starters, even though the song has plenty of time to work its way up to a chilling climax, she never screams or swears or really even does anything outright aggressive. Her lyrics are quite accusatory, basically leveling charges of him abandoning the family and being an unfeeling, spinless wuss, but her tone never seems to rise above a heavy-hearted moan. The song is structured in such a way that one brief verse creeps out at a time, with the strings sadly yet majestically echoing her repeating melody, and there’s generally a long, sustained pause in between, while she gathers up the courage to say more as the strings just gently hum there, awaiting their cue. Arca’s production is what keeps this from getting monotonous over ten minutes – you have to be really patient for this one, but it pays off as the creepy, slightly unnerving beats that begin to bubble up in the background gradually coalesce into, of all things, a slamming dance beat. It’s not a happy dance beat by any stretch of the imagination, but it pounds and pounds away as if to say, I know what you did and I will hunt you down and haunt your dreams for the rest of your natural life. Even though Björk herself sounds more dejected than vindictive, the threat is clearly present between the lines of this murky, mystifying, and ultimately monolithic song that will probably go down in history as one of her bravest experiments.
This is the point where Vulnicura becomes not just about two people, but about three. It’s literally the centerpiece of the album, and it’s structured as a trilogy with three very distinct movements, which is interesting because the album slowly reveals itself to be a “trilogy of trilogies” in terms of how its nine songs are grouped. The first three, which all took place before the breakup, could essentially be summed up as “I still love you, so please, let’s try to make this thing work”, and the middle three, which all take place after the breakup, basically come across as the “You Stupid, Stupid Man” trilogy, because they are all basically about his decision to leave and how all three of them will suffer the consequences for it. The first two segments of this song are by far some of the most disturbing musical movements on the record, the first due to The Haxan Cloak’s eerily dark programming rising up out of the darkness like the cruel cracking of a whip while Björk’s lyrics are a bit obscured by her voice splitting off into a few different overlapping parts (none of which seem to follow a discernible pattern), and the second due to the furious, dissonant strings trying to match her seemingly making up a vocal melody on the spot. The song turns such a sudden corner between those two that it’s likely to startle even someone who just has the record on as background music (which is not to say that you should ever listen to it in this manner). I would say that this is where the album starts to get a little wonky in terms of its repeat listenability, but I’m not even sure that’s a fair criticism because the music so clearly communicates the utter despair that Björk is trying to convey on behalf of her fractured family. The third segment, by comparison, seems to breathe a sigh of relief, as peaceful, synthesized chords begin to wash over the listener (though the strings are still a bit tense in the background), as she begins to sing of healing, and raising “a monument of love”, and taking a surprisingly prayerful posture as she begs, “God save our daughter”. This is the longest segment of the song – it drags out for a bit longer than it really needs to – but its complete lack of mooring to any conventional song structure tells us how emotionally adrift Björk was at this point in the process. I actually think it might have been a good idea to fade this one out a few minutes sooner, and then save those final, prayerful strains for a reprise at the end of the record.
This is the one track on the record that just bugs me. Unlike others that may subvert my expectations in which that I can at least acknowledge make some sort of sense, this one just drones on and on, stubborn in its repetition, not seeming to care that it’s just harping on the same musical idea without really expanding on it. That central musical idea sounds like some sort of a sick music box, or perhaps the soundtrack to an eerie carnival ride where you’re not so much scared as you are woozy and just wishing it could be over already. The strings do their darndest to bring it to a climax and make it sound compelling, but Björk can’t quite manage to bring the creepy up to a level where it truly startles like the last track did. She certainly tries – her voice creaks and croaks as she moans about how love is supposed to keep us “safe from deeeeeeeeath!”, but it’s all very awkwardly maudlin. She’s trying to illustrate the difference between her emotional openness and her willingness to psychoanalyze every little piece of the painful experience, and his tight-lipped, distant approach to the whole thing, insisting that the not forgetting is the only thing that’s going to keep them whole and healthy. That’s the closest I can come to explanation of what a “notget” is – and it seems like a shame to title the song after two words jammed together, mention it once in the lyrics, and not explain why she felt the need to coin such a word in any satisfying way. Remember how I said that “Stonemilker” never got old despite running for nearly seven minutes? This one gets old in less than three, and it’s less than half over at that point. In all fairness, it’s still less of an irritant than Biophilia‘s “Hollow”, Volta‘s “Pneumonia” or a solid third of Medúlla, so I suppose it could be considered the “highest low point” of her last few records.
7. Atom Dance
The final third of the album it what I’ve decided to call “The Closure Trilogy”. These are the songs that aren’t given a specific timeframe in relation to the breakup, as if to suggest that they hope for a healing process not yet fully realized. Of the three, this one seems like the biggest departure from the album’s central concept at first, since Björk is singing about atoms and hemispheres and things that were once divided coming together again, which reminds me of some of Biophilia‘s themes. The string section plucks out a slow, but systematic dance in 5/4 time, which I want to call a “waltz”, except that technically it’s missing a beat, and I sort of love that about the song. This is the first and only time on the album when Björk, in her process of patching together various musical references to her past albums, seems to be specifically conjuring up memories of Volta, since she brings back Antony Hegarty for yet another duet vocal here. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t care much for the two songs she contributed to on that album (yes, she – that’s not a typo), but the way she gets dropped into the middle of this song – first as a background vocal, then as a sudden shift in tone as the song goes all electronic and glitchy for a little bit – definitely helps to change things up partway through its eight-minute run. She takes the lyric “No one is a lover alone/Most hearts fear their own home”, and repeats it passionately as the two voices intertwine in a fascinatingly weird crescendo. I enjoy this one more for the interesting sounds made by the two vocalists and the instruments supporting them than I do for the melody (which is mostly repetitive) or for the lyrics (which can be hard to make out due to the rather “fluid” vocal style of both singers). Björk seems to have learned something since Medúlla and Volta about how to use a guest vocalist effectively rather than just dropping them in regardless of how their style meshed with her own.
8. Mouth Mantra
Speaking of Medúlla, this song’s title reminds me of “Mouth’s Cradle”, one of the experiments from that record that didn’t work out so well. That record overall was fascinated with the human mouth and the sounds that it can make, while this song stands in sharp contrast to it, largely obscuring Björk’s lyrics and melodies behind sharp, laser-like blasts of percussive programming. It’s fascinating from a production standpoint, but sort of tragic from a storytelling standpoint, as it takes a lyric that works on multiple levels, and renders it somewhat inert through repetition. Björk had to have surgery to correct some nodules on her vocal chords in 2012, leaving her unable to sing or make any vocal sounds for a while, an understandably tragic circumstance for any vocalist, but especially for one this distinctive. This song is a protest against all of the times that “I was not heard”, and this dovetails nicely with earlier songs about how, in the midst of the relationship coming undone, her former lover would apparently shut down the conversation and refuse to help her sort through her grief. There’s a confidence and a defiance to that notion of finding her voice again that deserves to be heard above the din. Perhaps she’s composed and arranged the song in a way that intentionally obscures what’s being said to make it reflect her frame of mind at the time, but I feel like this one needs to be bolder. It comes across as less of a song and more of a semi-interesting sound collage. I honestly don’t recall much of anything else about it after the track ends.
Much like how the upbeat “Triumph of a Heart” felt really out of place at the end of Medúlla, this final track, which sounds at first like a confusing maze of syncopated programming and strings and vocal samples, seems defiantly out of step with the rest of the album at first. Not that I mind that per se. I actually like that this record goes out on a semi-happy note. Not that you’d guess it from a title like “Quicksand”, but the song seems to express genuine hope that the heart of a strong woman can survive dire circumstances. The song references her mother, who suffered a heart attack in 2011, prompting Björk to write the song well before the rest of the album had begun to take shape. But there also seems to be a bit tacked on at the end that reflects more recent circumstances, suggesting that if she were to give up, it would ruin her daughter’s hope for becoming a strong woman in the future. So just as Björk was inspired by her mother’s courage and sheer will to survive, she wants to be the same sort of an inspiration for future generations. The song’s central mantra – “When I’m broken, I am whole/And when I’m whole, I’m broken” – may well sum up the entire record. The confident rhythm of it helps me understand the structure of a song that seems a bit scattershot at first, because once I wrap my head around its rhythm, the rest of it seems to flow like a swift, raging, but beautiful river, hurtling boldly towards the album’s abrupt end. It’s actually surprising how quickly this one cuts off in its final seconds – at 3:45, it’s the one track that I think could stand to run a bit longer, if only to wrap things up in a more satisfying manner. But despite Björk’s hopefulness, this isn’t the sort of situation that she seems to want to wrap up in a pretty little bow. It’s still a process, and the abrupt ending may signify that she doesn’t know what’s supposed to happen next.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
History of Touches $1.25
Black Lake $1.50
Atom Dance $1
Mouth Mantra $.75