Before strapping in and listening to Vulnicura, the brand new Björk album which leaked this week and was thankfully released officially in response, I went back and listened again to her previous album, 2011’s Biophillia as a little catch up excercise. That record was strong – it pushed forward into the new decade with cutting expansions of her sound, like the star-blasting “Crystalline” or the gorgeous space dance, “Virus.” But Biophillia or her previous effort Volta, felt decreasingly like events, the way that all Björk albums had been for some time. A Björk album is always a guarantee of quality, but of lasting intrigue outside the fanbase? Not always. Vulnicura is an event with a capital E, and one anyone won’t soon forget. The event in question is the dissolution of her relationship Matthew Barney, and it is pretty devastating when stepping through the record’s scorched grounds.
Structurally, these are engrossing songs. The kind of stuff you don’t so much lose yourself in, but sit through attentively with a tight stomach as their slow, morose crawl builds upward. More recent Björk records approached abstract subjects like technology and evolution, but its fitting that her most personal record might be her most affecting and powerful. Of its nine tracks, the first six feature subtitles in the liner notes dictating how many months before or after the break that they take place in. She wants you to know the exact weight of this thing, something that is quite possibly the most harrowing experience in her life. The record opens with a gorgeous entrance in “Stonemilker” and ends with the cataclysmic “Quicksand,” a song that cuts during an orchestral loop, a symbolic moment of how the end of relationships never truly ends in our minds. The path in between is a long and arduous climb, but one that will keep you hanging on to each word.
While Vulnicura features a few high profile collaborators – futuristic beatmaker Arca acted as co-producer and avant-garde ambient artist the Haxan Cloak, provided mixing – this is something that is more Björk than any record of hers before it. The string arrangements which are all by her, are one of the most striking sounds to emit from it (behind her siren vocals of course) and they rush with intense sweeps and sputtering bow-taps that are like her inner turmoil given musical voice. Antony Hegarty also shows up but for a part on “Atom Dance” that comes in jarringly like static interference – he eventually finds a sweet spot, with his signature bellows duetting with Björk on the song’s outro.
The album doesn’t miss a beat otherwise – it is a harrowing pit of beautiful despair and it’s executed with the most meticulous precision. Its centerpiece (which is arguable since this whole album is pretty monolithic) is “Family,” a death dirge where she sings, “”Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family/Show some respect between the three of us.” The hanging, wide-eyed strings eventually give way to a fractured, Schubert-style cello interference before returning to the devastating, but nevertheless, gorgeous landscape. “History of Touches” is the record’s shortest track but is no less shattering than anything else, where she recalls waking her ex-husband in the middle of the night. Deep down she knows it will be the last moment of closeness they’ll ever share, and is subsequently reliving every intimate encounter with him right there. Anxious, staccato synths create the atmosphere, cutting in and out like a dream you’re desperately trying to hold onto before it fades into nothing.
No one has ever forgotten Björk, and we’d all be excited to hear whatever record she decides to make, especially when being gone for a few years, but it’s great to see that her return is something this heavy and personal, even if she went through hell to give it to us. Vulnicura is a tough listen only in that its something we can all relate to, even if we haven’t experienced it firsthand. Having read Kim Gordon’s forthcoming memoir, Girl in a Band, the subject of a dissolving family is something that’s fresh in my mind, and is vividly portrayed here. Vulnicura is the black mirror reflection of the sensual Vespertine, and like that record, it is one of Björk’s strongest to date.