Premature Evaluation: Björk Vulnicura
When a brilliant artist drops a surprise album out of nowhere, like gold from the sky, it’s a cause for celebration: Radiohead ripping through music-business paradigms, Beyoncé asserting giddy dominance, D’Angelo shattering a decades-long silence. And Björk’s new Vulnicura, bestowed as a gift to the world yesterday after a months-early leak made its release that much more urgent, is absolutely a cause for celebration. It’s one of our grand-stage space-travelers rediscovering some of the forces and impulses that led to her greatest works, coming up with an album that immediately sounds like her best work in more than a decade. But Vulnicura isn’t just a cause for celebration. More than that, it’s something you have to deal with. If you had the chance to see Dancer In The Dark in a crowded theater — and if you were able to notice it over the sound of your soul dropping through the floor — you may have heard an ambient room-noise as the movie wound to its devastating conclusion: Sniffles. Widespread sniffles. Entire rooms full of people quietly bawling to themselves over what was happening to this woman. They weren’t even necessarily sad because it was happening to Selma, Björk’s barely-drawn character. They were sad because it was happening to Björk. It is so, so hard to see Björk sad. Many of us have never known a world without Björk out there, throwing mad energy-sparks into the world, finding a private vocabulary for explosive joy, channeling feelings in ways that nobody else could. She’s a figure of enormous affection, someone we all want to see succeed. And Vulnicura is a document of a shatteringly, heart-crushingly sad era in Björk’s life. It’s an album-length wail of misery. It is rough.
As you’ve probably already read, Vulnicura is Björk’s album about her split from the artist Matthew Barney, her longtime partner and the father of her daughter. She’s called it “a complete heartbreak album,” which is a much better term than “breakup album.” This two were together for a long time, and they always gave off the impression of being a stable adult couple while still being, like, elusive mystical forest goblins. Without ever letting the world in on their actual personal lives, Björk and Barney came off as people who liked each other, who built lives around each other and stayed intertwined whenever possible. Björk recorded an entire classic album, 2001’s Vespertine, about how much she loved having sex with Barney. And breakups mean different things when you are grown, when you have children and your whole universe revolves around your family. At a certain point, even thinking about breaking that bond rips your soul up. Vulnicura is an album about that despair, about stumbling through a dark tunnel and trying to imagine a life on the other side. It’s visceral and tangible and, to another married grown-up with kids, frankly terrifying. There are countless breakup albums out there in the world, and even plenty of divorce albums. But off the top of my head, I can’t think of another record that addresses this kind of personal apocalypse so starkly and expressively.
Björk is no stranger to breakup songs. “5 Years,” from Homogenic, was an ice-cold ethering of an old flame: “I’m so bored of cowards / Who say they want / Then they can’t handle / You can’t handle love.” Vulincura is something else. It’s an angry album, sure. She spits plenty of darts at Barney. On “Lionsong”: “Maybe he will come out of this / Maybe he won’t / Somehow I’m not too bothered either way.” (Björk apparently wrote “Lionsong” months before the breakup.) On “Black Lake”: “Family was always our sacred mutual mission / Which you abandoned / You have nothing to give / Your heart is hollow.” Those feelings are real, and they come out strongest when they manifest themselves as mother-bear protectiveness directed at the man who, by drifting away, is destroying her family. But anger isn’t the point here. It’s not an album written in the second person. Björk paints her feelings of loss and fear and hopelessness just as vividly, if not more so. The album is structured chronologically, starting with the time before the breakup and ending long after. “Black Lake” is the album’s 10-minute centerpiece and the one written in the immediate aftermath of that emotional upheaval. It’s devastating, and it reaches for dizzying, almost sickening metaphorical intensity to get its point across: “My shield is gone / My protection is taken / I am one wound / My pulsating body / Suffering being.” Then, later: “I am a glowing shiny rocket / Returning home / As I enter the atmosphere / I burn off layer by layer.” On “Family,” one song later, she’s singing about “the death of my family”: “Where do I go to make an offering / To mourn our miraculous triangle.” And that feeling of death comes back again on “Notget,” the next song: “Without love, I feel the abyss / Understand your fear of death.”
That mid-album troika — when the breakup has just happened, when it’s at its most raw — is the album’s beating heart. It’s the album at its most shattering. But many of the most incisive moments on the album come before the breakup, and they draw a powerful image of a couple drifting apart. “Show me emotional respect,” Björk sings on “Stonemilker,” the miracle of an opening track, and it feels like a command, one that goes unheeded. “History Of Touches” is the song right before the break, and it’s about holding on to every good moment, trying to preserve it in amber: “I wake you up in the night / Feeling this is our last time together… Every single touch we ever touch each other / Every single fuck we ever had together / Is in a wondrous time lapse / With us here at this moment.” And as the breakup finally starts to fade, we hear something new finally creep into Björk’s voice: Hope. Björk arranged the album’s strings, which swirl weightily throughout. But on the late-album track “Atom Dance,” they lift a bit. Playfulness creeps in. “When you feel the flow as primal love / Enter the pain and dance with me,” she sings. I could be misinterpreting things here, but the song sounds, to me at least, like Björk relying on her friends for comfort and actually getting some out of it. Antony Hegarty, an old Björk collaborator and the only other voice on the album, shows up, lifting her and giving her support. But the feeling doesn’t last. By “Quicksand,” the final track, those pizzicato string-plucks have given way to decentered globs of bass and drum. Her last words: “Every time you give up / You take away our future / And my continuity and my daughter’s / And her daughter / And her daughter / And her daughter.” It ends mid-blurp, as it sounds like it’s about to shift to another phase of the song. There’s no fade-out. The album leaves nothing resolved.
Before we learned what the album was about, the big news was that Björk was working with a pair of ascendent electronic-music visionaries: The Venezuelan rap disruptor Arca (“this enchanted arca,” per Björk’s wonderful phrase), who co-produced most of it, and British dark-fog conjurer the Haxan Cloak, who mixed it. Björk has spoken and written about how she worked closely with the two of them in the later phases of putting the album together. And you can hear the influence of both, especially Arca. On “Notget,” the bloops and pings seem to fly in from every angle, threatening to turn into an actual groove but then dissipating before it quite arrives. On “Mouth Mantra,” the strings and electronics work both with and against each other in fascinating ways. In the middle section of “Black Lake,” a pounding and gasping club beat kicks in, and it’s like the dancing naked being from Arca’s Xen videos has dropped in suddenly to interrupt the misery-reverie.
But while Arca and the Haxan Cloak are crucial parts of the album, their presence does not define it. This is very much Björk’s show. She’s the sole writer on most of the songs, she produced or co-produced everything, and she arranged the strings that ultimately matter more to the album than the beats do. In this great Pitchfork interview, she talks persuasively and poignantly about the idea of the “female auteur,” about how rarely she gets the credit she’s due even on her own albums. (She also cries a lot. It’s very heavy.) And anyway, Björk singing over strange and futuristic and next-level beat music is nothing new. Arca and the Haxan Cloak have never made anything this purely, emotionally powerful on their own. Björk is pursuing a very personal vision here — one that doesn’t just come from isolation but one that’s largely about forced personal isolation.
Superficially, Vulnicura has a lot in common with both Homogenic and Vespertine, arguably Björk’s two best albums. It has some of those same combinations: Björk’s otherworldly voice paired with strings and choirs and beats. And it’s personal, the way those two albums were. Björk’s last few albums were about larger things. Volta was about the ideas of shared humanity, of unified tribes. Biophilia was about nature and technology and the concept that they don’t have to be at odds with each other. Vulnicura is a return to the inner life, and it’s as immediately striking and singular and powerful as those older albums were. But those two albums chased beauty. Vulnicura has plenty of beauty within. Opener “Stonemilker,” in particular, is one of the most starkly, heart-stoppingly gorgeous things she’s ever done. (It’s probably not a coincidence that it’s the one song on the album that she both wrote and produced entirely by herself.) The sound is so rich and full and thick that it’s really a shame it leaked in shitty-bitrate form first. (Listening to the leak was like trying to watch Lawrence Of Arabia on an iPhone screen, and I feel like that’s a big part of the reason Björk released the real version so early.) Often, though, the beauty feels like a mere means to an end, never a goal. You could listen to Homogenic and Vespertine while you did other things. Vulnicura does not afford you that luxury. It is an all-swallowing thing. It’s an album that’ll beat you up, that’ll leave you feeling drained and sad. (When my wife got home from work just now, she asked me what was wrong, and I had to explain that I’d been listening to this album all day. It’s an album that will physically change your appearance if you spend long enough with it.) It’s not an easy listen, but it’s a vital one.
Show this album emotional respect. It deserves it.
Vulnicura is out now on One Little Indian.