First listen: Björk's new album Vulnicura - deeply, profoundly beautiful
The Icelandic star is the latest to drop an album without warning, and it’s a triumph
Date Reviewed: January 21st, 2015
Following a leak of a number of tracks, another high quality and highly idiosyncratic musician decides to drop their new album months ahead of its official release. You’d think that, as the idiosyncratic musician in question is Björk, we’d be in for all manner of odd shapes and weirdness, but there’s something about Vulnicura that’s just as surprising as the suddenness of its delivery: it’s a string-laden (violin, viola, cello) song suite about the disintegration of the singer’s relationship with American artist Matthew Barney. It is also simply, deeply, profoundly beautiful, and if you can dance to it, then fair play to you.
Vulnicura is a specifically, overtly female album; from the cover image onwards, and winding its way through the songs like a potion, Björk lays out emotional content and context. Each of the nine tracks are subtitled “before” and “after”, and document what the singer has termed “an emotional chronology” of events, a timeline of almost unbearable heartbreak, as well as “the wound and the healing of the wound”.
The opening song, Stonemilker, sets what is essentially a morose, confessional tone: “Moments of clarity are so rare,” Björk sings as neo-classical strings underpin gravity, “I better document this – at last the view is fierce.” Other “before” tracks such as Lionsong (“I smell declarations of solitude”) and History of Touches (“I wake you up in the night, feeling this is our last time together”) are equal to the task of blending hope with the dawning, foreboding realisation that all is not as it should be. Musically speaking, we are in a beguiling environment that gently ebbs and flows with the experimental nous we have come to expect from Björk, though not with levels of such minute personal detail.
The “after” tracks such as Black Lake (“my spirit is broken, into the fabric of all he is woven”), Family (“how will I sing us out of this sorrow?”) and Notget (“without love I feel the abyss”) may share some worrying post-relationship details but the album concludes on notes of optimism (Quicksand: “we are siblings of the sun, let’s step into this beam”) that are inevitably life affirming, although not particularly cheery.
Assisted here and there by the likes of Antony Hegarty (Atom Dance) and heretofore low profile Irish producer John Flynn, aka Spaces (Quicksand), Vulnicura is clearly Björk’s most mature statement of intent. Four years after the electronic-heavy Biophilia, she has equated emotional turmoil from a feminine perspective with a rare elegance. It’s tear-stained and truthfully, naturally overwrought, but from start to finish it’s a triumph.