Review Summary: The lows and the highs.
There has been no record I ever heard which affected me physically in the same way Björk's new outing Vulnicur
a has. The bumpy road of a broken heart evokes not only Björk's own barren feelings surrounding her break-up with artist Matthew Barney, but addresses the primal fear of those who are in love and cling to the thought of being loved, as Björk herself consistently has throughout most of her albums.
'a juxtapositioning fate/find our mutual coordinate' Björk stutters to open up the album. She tries to define tactics of revitalizing a relationship nearing its end over the first two songs, 'Stonemilker' and 'Lionsong'. From the start, she is accompanied by faultlessly arranged strings and almost subterranean beats, a bleak reminder of her work around the turn of the century and ravishingly beautiful all at the same time. The melodies of those songs may stand among the most direct and accessible of her career, with 'Stonemilker' carrying faint echoes of 'Who Is It"' (a celebratory track from 2004's Medúlla
), now only with doubt and melancholy weaving through the texture. The foreboding, exotic strings of 'Lionsong', with its meandering chord progression suggest the growing uncertainty and lack of clarity in what was once beautiful. Its repetitive, internal mantra 'maybe he will come out of this loving me' is often distorted by layers of electronic choruses made from Björk's voice, as to foreshadow the darkness ahead of her.
These first two tracks are labelled in the liner notes as having been written 9 and 5 months before the split, respectively. Those designations effectively cast a shadow over their beauty. 'History of Touches' (3 months before) feels like a take on Vespertine
's 'Cocoon' or Medúlla
's 'Desired Constellation' with the continuity of harmony and rhythm torn away. The lack of harmony makes Björk's recounting of former sexual bliss especially devastating and relatable. Synth tones bubble around her melody, at once scintillating and sad or droning away in the bass.
Then comes the wrecking 'Black Lake' (2 months after), whose title is very much an indicator how it sounds. Funereal strings and mourning stretched out over ten depressive minutes, with grief taking over from melancholy. The string arrangement, with its sul ponticello
playing, shrieking harmonics and painfully droning interludes consisting of variations of a single chord, is viscerally demanding and the lyrics are almost embarassingly human: the disdain, the anger, the self-pity all laid out as human emotions, undisguised, raw and not hidden by even the slightest nuance.
The microtonal stringscapes of 'Family' (6 months after), where she mourns the 'death of my family', combined with one of the most horrifying electronic beats underneath continue this psychosomatic pain. Certainties being shattered to a million pieces, as the droning soundscape disintegrates into wild, atonal string arpeggio's before finding the first signs of some sort of a resolution, albeit tempered as soon as it was found ('this universe of solutions/this place of solutions/this location of solutions'). The solutions aren't all around us, even though the soundscape recalls 'All is Full of Love'. They have to be painstakingly searched for. The dark-ambient soundscape still carries the deformities of the beginning, but now enlightened somhow.
The aggressive 'Notget' (11 months after) is a play on the classic lamento bass, and Björk is now trying to channel a chance to heal, to be found in her still bewildered, wild emotions. The electronics, with this album being co-produced by Wunderkind Arca, sound contemporary and aggressive, like stabs through bodily tissue. Its natural counterpart is 'Atom Dance', where the months have stopped mattering and where the healing is found in the primal, natural flow of love. Its lush, quirky arrangement (irregularly metered pizzicato strings) and Antony Hegarty joining her in a bewildering duet ('we are each others hemispheres') give a listener a sense of relief. Still, it's extreme and larger than life in its emotions, there is no sense of calming down and as the lyric makes clear: the wound is still there, but feeling love again can gradually make it better. It's a restless, and once again impeccably arranged piece of music.
The Prokofiev-like string banging of 'Mouth Mantra', which lacks a regular pulse or melody, give it an aggressive, tormented feel. It reads as an ode to her vocal cords, that 'noise pipe', but also as an allegory for the scars caused by the end of her relationship, and how to get rid of them. Appropriately yet frustratingly, 'Mouth Mantra' plays like an extreme take on a vocalise by Björk, and its 6 minutes are as enthralling as they are tiresome.
Luckily the mood definitively lifts on 'Quicksand', an IDM song sharing as much terrain with Vespertine
's tender 'Unison' as with Homogenic
's penultimate banger 'Pluto'. It questions the dichotomy between 'broken' and 'whole', and the scars of the past being carried by one's continuing family, one's evolving philosophy. It ends mid-song, an open ending for this heart-wrenching album.
Björk has grown as an arranger, although the set of instruments she has chosen here is a little more conventional than the one she used on every album since Drawing Restraint 9
. She manages to work wonders with the strings - which she all arranged herself - and transforming what made Homogenic
lush and engrossing into a more modern, deconstructed version of those cherished arrangements. The strings are like her heart: broken, unfinished, searching for harmony and representing Björk's state of mind as much as her voice does in this case.
There is less concept on Vulnicura
than on Biophilia
, that's for sure - - instead of intimacy directed at the universal we get an almost painful confessional intimacy to our narrator, a pain which I haven't felt since I first saw Dancer in the Dark
, which viscerally hurt in the same way. In a way, Vulnicura
comes very close to the darker parts of the soundtrack to that movie, only now we are allowed into Björk's private nightmare rather than Lars von Trier's. A nightmare which surprisingly challenges his for darkness. This album is a heavy, heavy listen, but with each listen the emphasis shifts from 'vulni' (of the wound) to 'cura' (the cure). And we can get healed by it.