Album Review: Björk - Vulnicura

On the plastic sleeve for the vinyl of Vulnicura, computer generated and mutating, Björk lies with her back stretching over a rock. A crevice splitting her chest, she is the embodiment of pain. As if all of nature’s might has physically and emotionally cracked her in two. Broken and bleeding, she holds her mouth ajar, a silent scream hits you as hard as the rock that surrounds her. It’s one of the most visceral and daring album covers in her discography and, now five years old, it remains one of the most visceral and daring albums of her career. 

Vulnicura is a break-up album. It’s as simple as that. Albeit one of the best ever made. Documenting the slow and painful destruction of her marriage to Matthew Barney, Vulnicura breaks down every moment of the 9 month build-up and eleven month aftermath. It’s an intensely private way to view an artist. In the liner notes, each track is prefaced with a date stamp, showing the time in the relationship it corresponds to. Like windows to Björk’s soul, each song does its best to let the listener in on how she was feeling. The fact that it does so with such alarming clarity is the thing that hits hardest about Vulnicura. 

Opening 9 months before, first track Stonemilker details the first hairline cracks emerging from a once pristine surface. Naturally, its imperfect. The melody is long and drawn out, lurching from ecstatic highs to quiet slumps, it remains one of the albums lightest tracks against the darkness to come. Even in this state, as the listener you can’t help but feel like you’re prying on a conversation or line of thought you should’ve never heard. Like opening a diary with your eyes closed and still ingesting everything from within. Later, on History of Touches, the album’s most sonically enveloped track, Björk takes this to new extremes. On a bed of deep synth, she cries out “every single f**k, we ever had together, is in a wondrous time lapse,” examining every moment of affection and re-casting it in doubt. It’s uncomfortable and utterly heart breaking to see someone question their very being.

An emotional purge turns physical and Björk is comfortable enough to allow all of her vocal appendages to slip seamlessly into each song

– Kieran Baddeley

The album’s fulcrum is the 10-minute Black Lake, Björk’s most stunning track to date. Playing around with contrast, the track subsumes you in lingering silence between verses; time for you to take in each and every word she struggles to sing. “I did it for love, honoured my feelings, you betrayed your own heart, corrupted that organ,” like jigsaw pieces, the lyrics are fragmented but join to form a vivid image of heart break. It’s one of Björk’s longest songs but every second is integral to Vulnicura’s emotional patchwork. 

The track also highlights Björk’s greatest strength, her voice. One of the most flexible in the industry, here it seems even more idiosyncratic than usual and with each roll of her ‘R’s’ you get the feeling all self-consciousness in out of the window. An emotional purge turns physical and Björk is comfortable enough to allow all of her vocal appendages to slip seamlessly into each song (even the album’s liner notes are hand-written in a wonderfully personal child-like scrawl.) Whereas on her early albums, all the way up until 2001’s Vespertine (the greatest contrast to Vulnicura emotionally, written when her and Barney’s love was blossoming) the melodies were intuitive, here they are more stream of consciousness, each syllable contorted to add extra depth. The album is difficult structurally as well as emotionally. At the end of the albums one hour run-time you’re left exhausted.

For an album centred around such emotional haemorrhage, Björk doesn’t navigate the void alone. Producer Arca creates a wonderful collage of disparate beats and synths, interwoven with Björk’s string arrangements. A symbiotic connection between artist and producer like this one is something seldom found in music. The two seem instinctively attuned to following one another’s whims. On Black Lake, the strings dissipate for a moment and Arca emerges from the silence with something akin to a build-up to a bass drop that teeters forever on the edge of indecision. On Atom Dance, she is joined by Anohni: two wondrous voices circling one another, the kinetic beat-work from Arca spinning around them in the opposite direction. Somehow, it all works.

Not since her work with Mark Bell on Homogenic in 1997 has she seemed so cohesive in her creative vision.

– Kieran Baddeley

Björk’s latest album Utopia chronicles her healing process. It is far removed from the almost austere arrangements of Vulnicura, super-saturated with Arca’s once complimentary production. It is a superb album, but the connection between the two doesn’t seem as vital as it does here. Not since her work with Mark Bell on Homogenic in 1997 has she seemed so cohesive in her creative vision. Make no mistake however, all of the work on Vulnicura is Björk’s. This is her album, her journey and her redemption.     

Closing track Quicksand seems most akin to what Björk would go on to do with Utopia. With its syncopated beats and lack of strings, it is also one of the most approachable songs on the album, not least because of its more positive outlook. Its lyrics focusing around the future of her child make it one of Björk’s best anthems. Its message, as she sings herself, will stretch from one generation to another: “every time you give up, you take away our future and my daughters, and her daughters, and her daughters…” 

Yes, with Vulnicura, Björk was heartbroken. But peel back the plastic sleeve and the true album cover shines forth. Clad head to toe in latex and shrouded in electric blue and yellow fronds, she looks the most powerful she’s ever been. Her arms open in a gesture that says “throw all you can at me.” You get the feeling she emerges at the end of Vulnicura stronger than ever before. While intrinsically Björk’s own journey, its themes and messages reverberate across every person who’s heard the album (much like Joni Mitchell’s Blue.) Reverberating through the tears, the darkness and eventually, the light. 

“Hackle this darkness, up to the light” she sings and it feels like a manifesto for everyone who’s listening. Darkness may seem permanent but by grabbing it by the throat, it cannot prevail.