Review: Bjork Breaks Our Hearts Anew on ‘Vulnicura’
Release Date: January 23, 2015
Label: One Little Indian
We long ago decided to just let Björk be Björk. This woman has already given us “Hyperballad,” and the video for “It’s Oh So Quiet” and Homogenic, so if her last several albums were a bit stunty (2004’s cut-up a cappella experiment Medúlla), scattershot (2007’s Volta), and an undercooked companion to an innovative live stage show/app/interactive exhibit (2011’s Biophilia) no one was going to get all that mad. Those albums all had their moments, but it’s been hard to shake the sense that Björk was increasingly focusing on Big Ideas (the nature of the human body on Medúlla, the dichotomy of science and nature on Biophilia, whatever her 2005 soundtrack experiment, Drawing Restraint 9, was about) at the expense of what made us fall in love with her in the first place: her forward-thinking but always human-scale songwriting. So what a welcome surprise that Vulnicura, her ninth album, is not just her most focused work in more than a decade, but her first in a while aimed more at the heart than the head.
Which is not to say that Vulnicura skimps on the ambition, or is anyone’s definition of a pop move. Returning to the orchestral-meets-electronic approach of Homogenic but in a vastly different context, the album was reportedly written in the wake of Björk’s separation from her longtime partner, multimedia artist Matthew Barney, and even before you get to the words, the album just feels like a heart collapsing in on itself. The string sections, arranged by Björk, feel like a stand-in for the artist’s spirit: bruised and fragile, barely able to get out of bed but fighting to stay above the numbing despair represented by the ice cold beats and laptop gurgles she created in partnership with Kanye West/FKA twigs collaborator Arca, with additional production and finely-stitched mixing from British producer the Haxan Cloak.
Vulnicura doesn’t have the reach-out-and-grab-your-attention quality of Björk’s more technicolor works, but it possesses a dramatic weight in its own right, moving along a Kübler-Ross model as Björk examines the death of her relationship and the end of her world, from early denial on “Lionsong” (“Maybe he will come out of this loving me”) to anger (“I am bored of your / Apocalyptic obsessions,” which also feels like a pretty wicked burn on Barney’s Cremaster Cycle) and depression (the slow, wordless coda on centerpiece “Black Lake”) to, if not hope, at least moving forward on “Mouth Mantra” (“Now I sacrifice this scar / Can you cut it off?”). All the while the backing tracks shift from mournful and defeated to… slightly less mournful and defeated. After a decade of diving deep into the abstract, Björk’s now more grounded and human than ever, thanks to the two most unfathomable ideas of them all: love and heartache.