Like staring into an open, gaping wound
by Jericho Cerrona
The latest album from Icelandic experimental pop weirdo Björk is a devastating, emotionally heart-wrenching experience. A self-professed breakup album detailing the dissolution of her relationship with longtime partner and father of her daughter, visual artist Matthew Barney, the album finds Björk in a state of free-fall. Never one for directly addressing her listeners in standard terms, choosing instead to invent entire worlds that ebb and flow with contradictory impulses, Vulnicura is the sound of an artist finally bearing her soul.
Like all of Björk's work, there are very few verse/chorus/verse arrangements or conventional song structures here, but there's still something boldly confessional about her impulses. It's almost as if these raw emotions have been filtered through her usual penchant for stylized artiness; songs swell with melodramatic strings, hooks are dismantled by brooding electronic beats etc, but Björk's unique voice is never completely at the mercy of of the aural onslaught. In a way, Vulnicura represents a trip back to the swooning instrumental grandeur of 1995's Post and the thematic vulnerability of 2001's Vespertine, but with the kind of world-weariness that accompanies someone nearing the age of 50. It's also, in terms of aesthetics, worlds away from her last record, 2011's Biophilia, a multi-media experiment made up of iPad apps, custom-made instruments, a 90-minute documentary, and heady lyrics about tectonic plates and interstellar viruses. While that album dabbled in detached minimalism, Vulnicura is both sweepingly bombastic and incredibly intimate. Never before has Björk been this forthcoming in terms of her deepest feelings, allowing the album to play almost like a free-flowing ballad of loss and pain.
Instead of branching outward and exploring universal themes, Björk plunges inward and by extension, touches something deeply universal, even as her grandiose instrumentation seems to indicate a longing to obscure trauma through sentimental string sections and swirling soundscapes. For example, the gorgeous opener "Stonemilker", in which she cries out show me emotional respect over symphonic swells, is perhaps the album's most emotionally open-wound; a simultaneously beautiful and stark rendering of falling out of love with someone with whom you feel bonded to by space, time, and eternity. Meanwhile, on "History of Touches", she reaches back into past memories and recalls a collection of intimate moments between her lover over ambient keyboard washes, with sentiments such as Every single touch/ We ever touch each other/ Every single fuck/ We had together/ Is in a wondrous time lapse with us here at this moment representing some of her most honest songwriting to date. There's more heartbreak to come too; seen most vividly on the 10-min lament "Black Lake", which uses a chopped-up backbeat, dirge-like organ, and weeping strings to haunting effect, even as lines like My heart is enormous lake/ Black with potion/ I am blind, drowning in this ocean threaten to submerge the song in navel-gazing misanthropy.
Truthfully, what keeps Vulnicura from coming off like a vanity project is just how uncompromising Björk is at distilling her sense of overwhelming sorrow without allowing things to become didactic. The power of her cooing vocal delivery; stuttering over the words, dragging out certain syllables, overlapping her voice as if it were an ethereal force of the elements, is key to why this particular type of self-indulgence is actually therapeutic for the listener. So many artists labor hard to create an emotional connection with their audience through simplifying everything down to predictable tales of love loss, heartbreak, infidelity, and starting over. Björk's music, through the sheer force of her idiosyncratic personality, has always existed in that nexus between the avant-garde and pop, and therefore a typical breakup record would never be expected or even welcomed. Still, there's something of a narrative trajectory here, as the last few tracks signify a slightly more optimistic tenor than the preceding six, which may or may not lead Björk toward healing. The nimble plucked strings and fluttering percussion of "Atom Dance", which features guest vocalist Anthony Hegarty, for instance, is perhaps the album's most restrained bit of internal mending. No one is a lover alone; it's a suggestion that carries massive potential for the future, and which, if followed through to it's logical conclusion, means the exposed heart can heal.
Vulnicura is an album that extrapolates the feeling of an amputated limp dangling for everyone to see. This is the story of a woman, her child, and the loss of her partner. It's an unsentimental, unsparing look at romantic love. Björk surely hoped to keep love alive, to nourish it, to hold her lovers body in her arms forever, but sometimes that isn't enough. This terrifying resolution; that the idea of the soul mate and everlasting love may be another figment of our fickle expectations, is so successfully communicated by Björk in a way that allows her to completely be herself while still harboring a commonly felt narrative. Unsettling, defiantly personal, and brimming with the painful realities of the temporal, Vulnicura is like staring into an open, gaping wound and then being helpless to stop the bleeding.