Vulnicura Strings is pale and anemic in comparison to its parent album.
Björk’s volcanic power is strange, mutable and undeniable. For decades now, she’s made music not bound by earthly limitations, mutating musical genes and her own voice into something wonderfully alien. This year’s Vulnicura was a prime example of that expanding mindset, an album that sat proudly beside Homogenic and Post as one of Björk’s finest works, a fiery piece that sunk into the lowest depths of heartbreak and found shimmering rays of light in the abyss. Beyond documenting emotional turmoil, Vulnicura also harkened to songs like “Joga,” which effortlessly combined dozens of genres into one bursting package—crumbling strings, electronic orchestrations and ancient melodies all collided in spectacular fashion. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Björk’s second release in 2015 would cut out one of her finest traits. On Vulnicura Strings, the conjoined twins of crystalline chamber music and glitching electronics are severed from each other, leaving only the tangible instruments to take up the slack.
Vulnicura Strings is pale and anemic in comparison to its parent album, but don’t let this cast doubt on Björk’s compositional charts. There are brief moments where the walls of strings serve as reminders that she’s one of the finest musicians of her generation. The jarring and screeching rhythm of “Notget” takes on a Psycho-like vibe when only the strings are included and “Atom Dance” does reveal itself as a proper ballet (even if it ends in a swirling meditation on the heart’s death).
Still, songs like “Black Lake” and “Lionsong” were thunderous thanks to the marriage of electronics and more traditional instruments. It’s been known for years that Björk can combine the two like few others, so why take away one of her greatest strengths? “Black Lake” suffers the most, as the jittering and avalanching breakdowns that hinted at emotions much deeper than just sadness are gone. “Lionsong” finds itself in a similar predicament, without a strong backbone to carry the whining strings. “Family” also loses its punch without crashing synths and samples in the background, sounding flat and thin.
The only song from Vulnicura Strings that might be remembered as fondly as its fully-formed partner is “Quicksand.” That track was the most electronically indebted song on Vulnicura and the string-heavy version feels like a reimagining. It’s a radically different feeling that Björk dances through here. The original had a rushed march that felt like Björk knew that the sands of time were running against her. With strings, she’s allowed a more leisurely pace. Rather than screaming against the void, she’s able to rest in warmth and reflect. It’s a rebirth here rather than a loss.
And “Quicksand” shows just how good this version of Vulnicura could have been, if the rearmaments weren’t so arbitrary. The brilliant songs Björk made are not singular, they are morphing, massive pieces, with billions of ideas pulsing through them. Björk limits herself here, and nothing this fantastic should ever have barriers placed around it.