“i guess i found in my lap one year into writing it a complete heartbreak album [sic]”, Björk declared on her Facebook page after the sudden release of this, her eighth album. Only in her hands, though, could heartbreak be turned into such a central concept, present in every wound of this record.
The inspiration behind the album was the breakdown of her relationship with partner Matthew Barney, resulting in her most personal and candid album. Gone are the tectonic shifts and bizarre instruments of 2011’s ‘Biophilia’. ‘Vulnicura’ strikes at the very heart of Björk.
Lyrically, then, this album is a raw and brutal portrait. Björk’s usual penchant for metaphor is diminished in favour of simplicity and directness. Much of it reads like a stream of consciousness: on opening track Stonemilker, for instance, she notes “moments of clarity are so rare, I better document this” before demanding “show me emotional respect”. Other lyrics are more frank, in particular History Of Touches that vividly portrays a final attempt at sex with its line “every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time lapse with us here at this moment”. Each song sees Björk drifting further into darkness, questioning every aspect of her failed relationship, including tragically the “death of my family” on Family. The questioning couplets of Black Lake read like simple poetry, yet truly cut to the heart of the matter: “Did I love you too much?” she questions, “my soul torn apart, my spirit is broken”. Listening to the album is akin to stumbling across a personal diary; her pain is horrifically tangible.
What makes ‘Vulnicura’ so impressive, though, is its word painting, every aspect of the music reflecting the album’s central concept. Her voice, for instance, known for its guttural earthy quality, is here altogether more intimate. She sings in a hushed, gentle tone that suggests her fragility and a reticence to accept the truth. This extends to the melody writing too. Stonemilker features an aching staccato delivery as if literally choking up, her voice eventually dissolving in a wave of strings; it’s followed by the sinuous, Oriental melodies of Lionsong that mirror her inquisitive lyrics. Later, on Atom Dance, she sings breathlessly “when you feel the flow as primal love, enter the pain and dance with me” before she’s joined by the otherworldly voice of Anthony Hegarty who truly becomes her opposite “hemisphere”.
Then there’s the production. Rather than the futurism of ‘Biophilia’, the key sound of ‘Vulnicura’ is strings – all arranged by Björk herself. Strings that lament (Stonemilker), strings that twist sensually (Lionsong), strings that shiver and dance (Atom Dance), and cavernous strings that hold emotion in suspense (Black Lake). They offer an element of humanity, of orchestral beauty and classicism that’s utterly juxtaposed with Alejandro Ghersi (a.k.a Arca’s) programmed beats that crack like heartbreak. Together the electronics and strings shift and break apart, creating and deconstructing this unique sound world. Often this occurs multiple times within the lengthy songs: in Notget and Atom Dance in particular, the sounds organically develop with the shifting emotions of the lyrics.
That’s not to say the developments of ‘Biophilia’ have been forgotten. If anything, ‘Vulnicura’ represents a culmination of Björk’s lifework: emotionally it is the counterpart to the intimate nocturnes of ‘Vespertine’ (written at the start of her relationship with Barney), whilst the techno beats hark back to her earlier work and much of the dissonant vocal harmonies and hypnotic textures are a step on from ‘Biophilia’. As with all of her output, this is a musically and lyrically rich avant garde album in which to thoroughly lose yourself, blessed with her unique Icelandic magic. Heartbreak may be prevalent in all forms of music, but rarely is it depicted in such an emotionally affecting and strangely relatable way as here.
* History of Touches
* Atom Dance
Listen: ‘Vulnicura’ is available to download now, with physical release in March.