Rating:It’s a cruelly ironic reality that the Björk album that Vulnicura most resembles in its best moments is Vespertine. That album was released some months before Björk and Matthew Barney had their first and only child; it’s fitting, given that the album is a surprisingly frank description of how much she likes having sex with Barney. Vulnicura, by contrast, is about her breakup with Barney, but its opening track, ”Stonemilker,” begins with a string section that recalls the sound of Vespertine. It’s more than a little sadistic to say that this is “good,” as it seems to excuse the enormous amounts of pain on the album so long as it sounds good. It’s also unfair, because although Vespertine and Homogenic–the other album that Vulnicura most resembles, particularly on its second half–are Björk’s two best albums, the ground she has traversed since then—sticking almost entirely to vocals (including sampled and processed vocals and beatboxing; don’t mistake it for a cappella) on the bold, political Medúlla; exploring industrial music and relying on horns on Volta; creating instruments and opting for a much denser sound on the cosmic Biophilia—still informs Vulnicura at various points. Björk’s latest is not her best album in over a decade simply because it sounds like her best albums, but rather despite these similarities. A musician like Björk, after all, deserves every word of acclaim she has garnered in part because of her continued evolution, her steadfast refusal to not go in a new direction and explore new sounds next time. If Vulnicura is not the enormous leap-forward, decade-defining release that Homogenic was, it is evidence that Björk does not experiment for experimentation’s sake. Every new piece of the puzzle serves a bigger picture, and Vulnicura is what most makes that picture visible.
“Moments of clarity are so rare/I better document this,” Björk sings early in ”Stonemilker,” a bit before ordering “show me emotional respect.” Many of the lyrics on Vulnicura look sappy and overly colloquial on the page, but Björk’s phrasing has long been one of her greatest strengths. On Post’s ”Possibly Maybe,” she memorably flirts As much as I definitely enjoy solitude/I wouldn’t mind, perhaps/Spending…a little time with you/Possibly maybe…probably love. That line is delivered with a playful, irresistible innocence; almost two decades later, that teasing lyric is a far cry from ”Lionsong”’s “Maybe he will come out of this loving me/Maybe he won’t/Somehow I’m not too bothered either way.” On Björk’s previous albums, her phrasing conveys a joyful and unrestrainable lust for life; on Vulnicura, it instead brings a desperate plea for emotional clarity.
It is difficult to capture the visceral and affective nature of Björk’s lyrics in words, but it should be noted that the booklet accompanying Vulnicura marks songs temporally in relation to the breakup. Show me emotional respect is nine months before, but by “History of Touches,” labeled as three months before, the swelling string and pleas are almost gone completely, replaced with heavily syncopated and microtonal electronic effects and synths that become darker and lower as the song progresses, as if descending into the album’s next song and centerpiece, the ten-minute ”Black Lake.” The lyrics on ”Black Lake” again look clichéd or indulgent on paper, with Björk proclaiming “My heart is enormous lake/Black with poison” and “My soul torn apart/My spirit is broken,” but the lengthy notes of the cellos and violins, combined with a dark, pulsating beat regularly threatens to more and more, as if these lyrics, affecting as they are given both the music and Björk’s unquestioned conviction, are just teasing something more. And indeed, after a break, the song resumes and interior doubts become quiet daggers. It’s a tremendously moving song, and it begins to swell around the time Björk asks “did I love you too much?” The accusations grow increasingly stark, so much so that they turn ”Black Lake” into one of the most poisonous love letters ever penned—it’s stunning to think that this song is unambiguously about a very particular person. The strings swell and tease, but the song never reaches the anthemic emotional heights of ”Hyperballad” or ”Joga,” and the pulsating beats underneath never turn into something as angry and explosive as “Declare Independence” or even “Earth Intruders,” as if the energy for such a chorus is simply not there. All of this makes it perhaps Björk’s bravest song: for ten minutes, she bares her soul, and each additional listen only makes it clearer that the song never was going to explode or turn into something else—this is pure, unbridled emotion.
Vulnicura is, in some ways, the playing out of a particular tension, between Björk’s need to simply put all her feelings out there and to dress up songs in increasingly complex ways, as she has her whole career. Following ”Black Lake,” ”Family” is paced by a thunderous bass whomp before it is suddenly replaced by a cello solo made up not of vibratos, long notes, and slurred bowing but by quick, heavy staccato attacks that seem to operate entirely without regard to Björk’s unchanged vocal delivery. It’s a reminder that for all her popular success, Björk is a musician working firmly within the avant-garde, here using polyphony to literally create another voice that cannot enter dialogue with her own.
Lasting just under 59 minutes over only nine lengthy songs (only two clock in under six minutes), a weak track could easily kill Vulnicura’s momentum, so it’s a mighty feat of sequencing that the album never falters. Like Biophilia especially, Vulnicura is a dense album requiring a close listen. The final four tracks are particularly experimental, with prominent strings, glitchy beats, and processed and layered vocals reaffirming that, although Björk can find a hook when she wants to, she is far closer to the avant-garde than to pop. Listeners who are fatigued easily—either by Björk’s confessionary lyrics or unpredictable compositions—may get bogged down before “Quicksand,” the somewhat-optimistic but ultimately heartbreaking closing track. That song begins like a track off of Volta but quickly evolves into one of Björk’s most beautiful songs. It ends abruptly and inconclusively, a fitting end for a break-up album as accomplished and deliberate as this one.