No one in their right mind would ever call Björk’s ninth studio album Vulnicura a “back-to-basics” record, particularly because there’s never been anything “basic” about Björk’s music, but also because, despite its minimal instrumentation, refined arrangements and thematic clarity, Vulnicura is a harrowingly difficult album. Still, there’s something elemental and reductive about it, especially coming off of the singer’s 2011 effort, the wide-eyed and extravagant Biophilia. The root of this stylistic withdrawal, as keenly noted by literally everyone reporting on the album, is the Björk’s tumultuous breakup in 2013 with longtime partner and father of her daughter, visual artist Matthew Barney. Björk, who has spent a sizable portion of her career working in a grand scope, creating and exploring universes, compels herself to mire in her own intimate feelings on Vulnicura. Expectedly, she handles it well.
Calling Vulnicura a breakup album is like calling Post a pop album; the label may be technically, semantically correct in some basic way, but it fails to convey the complexity of emotions keeping Vulnicura afloat. In press material, Björk herself has placed the album’s tone near the prototypical singer-songwriter mode: confessional, romantic, vulnerable. This is absolutely the case, but those foundational archetypes are used more as philosophical guideposts than actual stylistic influences. It’s impossible to triangulate any of Björk’s source material, for this or any of her albums, because very little else exists like Vulnicura. In that way, it fits right in to her discography.
But then how does one approach the record? Rather than the vibrant, explosive music of albums past, Vulnicura is dank and swampy, paradoxically subtle and melodramatic at once. It’s like a single excruciatingly long ballad, with compositions dominated by sentimental string sections, cold, blusterous electronic beats (co-authored by dark experimental producer Arca) and Björk’s stirring voice, hesitant and abused. She stammers through the lyrics, drenched in anxiety, following the emotive movements of the strings. The songs are sparse and uncentered, without Björk’s typically powerful voice propping them up and instead drawing on her fragility. There are few hooks, few logical structures, few stable components to hold on to. Björk effectively brings the listener into the shadows and then forces them to find their own way out.
By escaping from her grandiose visions to dwell in her own head, Björk has made a stark and overwhelming record that proves she still has an abundance of ideas to explore, even at a detriment to herself. It’s an album where a song titled “Family” is one of the darkest, most devastating pieces, an album where she sings about deserving “emotional respect” and just a song later hoping “maybe he will come out of this loving me.” Vulnicura deals with all the complicated emotions that come with the dissolution of a romantic relationship, when one person falls off the wavelength of another without explanation and they’re left to wonder what happened. Björk bravely explores the atomic makeup her own relationship rather than attempt broader revelations, making for personal and vital music that she hasn’t focused on in far too long. On “History of Touches”, she recalls intimate moments (“Every single touch / We ever touch each other / Every single fuck / We had together / Is in a wondrous time lapse with us here at this moment”) while the bleak and exhausting “Black Lake” calls on the detailed, invasive imagery of physical manifestations of heartbreak (“Our love was my womb”; “I am one wound, my pulsating body”; “You betrayed your own heart / Corrupted that organ”; “My heart is enormous lake / Black with potion / I am blind, drowning in this ocean”). Björk symbolically rips herself open in an attempt to share her suffering, a sacrificial act that she’s always been capable of but not often committed. Vulnicura, then, is a much needed spilling of blood.
Still, there are sections of levity and optimism that break through the album’s inky sorrow, notably the plucky “Atom Dance”, which features an outstanding duet with Antony Hegarty and ends with an abstractly uplifting sentiment: “the atoms are dancing, dancing.” There are layers to peel back on the darker songs, as well. “Black Lake”, for instance, begins with Björk lamenting her loss of “protection”, and by the end she’s found some empowerment, however small. This helps the album from feeling oppressive, but it also requires personal investment from the audience, a willingness to engage with the murky sensationalism, otherwise the blackness will only turn them off completely. Regardless, Vulnicura is emotionally bare and, as a result, remarkably complex, demanding of an active listener, but it’s also one of Björk’s most poetic records in a long career. It also rewards those who join her on her emotional journey.