Full of inquisitive, childlike wonder, Björk’s album Biophilia gazed upon the Earth and the grand universe around it, with eyes fixed firmly upon the lenses of both the microscope and the telescope. The atomic, cosmic, cellular and natural worlds were dissected and celebrated, sparking open debate and discourse on technology, musicology and the environment. The record spawned a concert film, a documentary, some ingenious educational apps and even the development of a few new instruments. While there were moments of ingenuity and Björkian beauty to be found, as a whole, the music itself was arguably not always quite as scintillating as the hype surrounding it.
If Medúlla, Volta, and Biophilia didn’t ensnare your ears with moments of sporadic genius, the Björk who divulged her carnal desires and wide-eyed, romantic intentions on the resplendent Vespertine, has returned with those luxuriant strings in tow. The subject matter is decidedly dour on her latest outing. She is broken, wounded, and desperately trying to find clarity, closure and a sense of wholeness again. There is no “Army of Me” anymore. The battlefield is littered with debris and optimism is rotting in the aftermath of a love gone sickeningly sour. However, hope is still lingering in the distance. On her ninth album Vulnicura, the microscope has been turned inward, brutally chronicling the dissolution of her relationship with longtime partner, avant-garde NY filmmaker and sculptor Matthew Barney. The simplistic, yet savagely blunt lyrics seem ripped from the pages of her most intimate journals, yet there’s something refreshing about being given an honest glimpse into the heart and mind of Björk, the flesh and blood human being.
In her collaborative work with Matmos, Zeena Parkins, Tricky, Matthew Herbert, 16bit and many others throughout her career, Björk has found a diverse array of kindred spirits, willing and capable of augmenting and complimenting the ambitious scope of her innovative musical and technological visions. Some of these artistic alliances have been more effective than others, but the best of them let her intricate compositions breathe and flourish. Co-produced with Venezuelan musician, DJ, and producer Arca (Alejandro Ghersi) and mixed by English dark ambient musician-producer the Haxan Cloak (Bobby Krlic), she has once again found that perfect balance. The subtle electronic production never overshadows her iconic instrument or the arrangements surrounding it. Oftentimes, angular, pulsating beats are completely absent altogether, replaced by atmospheric synth chords, like those found within the devastating track “History of Touches”.
The etymology of the album’s curious title could be left to speculation, but when broken apart into separate words, their individual and collective meanings are too coincidental to simply be tossed aside. The definition of the Latin words “vulnific” or “vulnus”, roughly translate to “inflicting wounds” or “injury”, while “cura” means “care”, “cure” and in Middle English, it meant “care of souls”. Bound together these words reflect the emotional arch of Vulnicura‘s narrative. The vicious psychological “wounds” we inflict upon one another, may ultimately destroy the very foundation our relationships are built on top of. Given the passing of time and the acknowledgment that these wounds actually exist, they can be tended to, cared for, and given the opportunity to heal.
Through a sumptuously orchestrated song cycle, Björk explores her fears, frustrations, and despair at watching the world she created together with Barney (never officially mentioned by name in the lyrics) crumble before her. It’s a bit like witnessing the encroaching darkness of the Nothing, devour the landscape of Fantastica in Michael Ende’s fantasy classic Die Unendliche Geschicte. The inhabitants can do little but watch everything they love be destroyed and then vanish before their eyes.
As the album unfolds, Vulnicura proves to be one of the most approachable collections of songs she has unleashed upon the public since 2001. Opening track “Stonemilker” documents the slowly collapsing, open dialogue between the two lovers, nine months before the breakup. In the accompanying lyric booklet, tracks one through six are tagged with a dated timeline, highlighting Björk’s pre and post emotional state. In a variation of the idiom “you can’t get blood from a stone”, Björk substitutes blood with milk. Something so nourishing and life-giving cannot be found within the stone cold sentiment she is receiving from her partner. She is looking for a willingness from him to be open, respectful, honest and vulnerable with her, but she is getting little in return. “Stonemilker” is one of her most stunning creations, deftly straddling the line between the avant-garde and the immensely accessible, the direct and the obtuse. The lavish strings, provided by the ensemble U Strings, are a welcome reminder of her sublime orchestral arranging talents.
“Lionsong”, reminiscent of something from the Homogenic era, is set five months before the demise of her relationship. Frustrated and uncomfortably complacent with his behavior, she demands some sort of clarity. She has grown weary of “taming the animal” and wonders what can be done to elicit any sort of sentiment from him. Accompanied by slithering, metallic passages and stately strings she sings, “Once it was simple / one feeling at a time / it reached it’s peak then transformed / these abstract complex feelings / I just don’t know how to handle them.” Two months later on “History of Touches”, she is lost within her intuitive thoughts while making love to him. She is slowly coming to terms with the reality that this might be the final time they ever touch one another so intimately again. Moments from the past collide with the present as if the two were one, and she bathes within the sad eroticism and resignation of that night, singing “every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time lapse… every single archive compressed into a second.” Hearing the word “fuck” fall from her lips is as jarring as it is utterly essential in capturing the cruel essence of the moment.
Gloriously depressing, the ten-minute “Black Lake”, serves as the bleak centerpiece of Vulnicura. In the midst of lyrics that verbally disembowel her ex-partner, the song’s faint, martial, “Jóga”-esque synths dip in and out of a woozy string arrangement, one that ripples between static quietude and cinematic melodrama. The lyrics are in turn, both trite, “I am blind / drowning in this ocean”, and uniquely evocative, as in when she sings, “I am a glowing shiny rocket / returning home. As I enter the atmosphere / I burn off layer by layer / jettison.” In the midst of the starless despair found throughout the song, the sudden, frenetic bass line that materializes halfway through, gives a false impression that the track might veer into dark rave territory. It’s but a diverting tease. The musical thought evaporates as quickly as it appeared.
On the album’s fifth track “Family”, she asks herself and anyone listening, “Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?” Co-written with Arca, this is the only time that the Haxan Cloak, who mixed the entire recording, is also a producer. The ornate curtain of strings rends at the seams, while a skewering bass line gives way to a nervous, skittering cello solo. It sounds as if a knife is being pulled through the core of her chest. This sense of unease, continues into “Notget”, the sixth and final moment within Vulnicura when a time frame is attached to the title of a track. The song blends bright organ strokes and quickly-bowed strings, pairing them with Arca’s claustrophobic production work. The sharp, jabbing, reed-like synths occasionally found on Arca’s debut album Xen, appear here out of the mix, further magnifying the song’s lyrical disorientation. While she has gone on record to say that she once believed she was an atheist, Björk has seemingly changed her thoughts and feelings on the matter throughout the years, and Biophilia hinted at a more pantheistic view towards nature. “Notget” even echoes a Buddhist concept concerning obstacles in our paths. She sings, “If I regret us I’m denying my soul to grow / don’t remove my pain / it is my chance to heal.”
In the aftermath of “Notget”, time is of no consequence to the narrative of the album. It is not a matter of when Björk will heal, it is that she is finally embracing some sort of inner serenity, and is making peace with her pain. On “Atom Dance” she once again collaborates with guest vocalist Antony Hegarty, who appeared on Volta‘s “Dull Flame of Desire” in a more commanding role. Here, his refined, yet understated presence is relegated to the background, as pizzicato strings flit and chassé about their two voices. Here she attempts to embrace the pain and move forward. The lyrical sentiment of Vulnicura never fully surrenders to a sunlit, cheery optimism, but “Atom Dance” waltzes painfully close: “I am dancing towards transformation / learning by love to open it up / let this ugly wound breathe… we aim at pealing off / dead layers of loveless love…. Enter the pain and dance with me!”
“Mouth Mantra” isn’t one of the album’s most immediate tracks, but it grows more and more interesting as one revisits it. In 2012, Björk cancelled shows due to nodules that developed on her vocal folds and she underwent laser surgery to have the polyps removed. She remained quiet for three weeks and then slowly began rebuilding her instrument and regaining vocal endurance. Lyrics such as, “my throat was stuffed / my mouth was sewn up / banned from making noise / I was not heard”, are as pertinent to the subject of her physical injury as to that of the entire album as a whole. Some may balk at this, but it is intriguing to think that psychological injuries might suddenly manifest themselves in a physical form. Clearly this relationship was devastating to both her body and psyche. Arca’s glitchy, electronic textures kick up the tempo a notch, before giving way to “Quicksand”, the album’s final cut, written with electronic musician Spaces, aka John Glynn. The swirling, percussive track boasts a poignant sentiment: “When we’re broken we are whole / And when we’re whole we’re broken.”
The symbolism of Inez van Lamsweerde and Vioodh Matadin’s magnificent cover and insert photograph for Vulnicura has been relatively disregarded in online press materials. While Björk is not religious in the traditional sense, she is notably spiritual on some level, and the imagery chosen for this record raises some intriguing thoughts. Her inky black, patent leather bodysuit is emblazoned with a deep gash between her breasts down to her navel, an empty void where her heart once was. Her hair is seemingly wet and unkempt, as if she’s been weathering a storm. A clear plastic cape covers her shoulders and arms, and colorful, feathery spikes jut out, haloing her head and torso. While the dark bodysuit and gash clearly mirror her inner and outer torment, it is almost as if the yellow, blue, turquoise, violet, purple and green colors are like auras surrounding her. In that spectrum of color, they represent physical health, abstracts concepts and emotions like joy, balance, calmness, intuitiveness, dynamism, growth, nature, change, power struggle, loss of control, and awakenings. Every single one of these descriptors seems relevant to the album’s lyrical texts and subject matter. Darkness may envelop the body and life may leave nasty little scars, but there will always be some way out of the gloom and despair.
Those expecting a light-hearted romp through an avant-garde pop playland might be disappointed with Vulnicura, but Björk wasn’t writing this album to satiate the portion of her fan base who are still clamoring for another “Hyper-Ballad” or “Big Time Sensuality”. Break-up albums aren’t particularly groundbreaking or unprecedented these days, but somehow she has crafted one that seems uniquely sincere. In publicly recounting the agony of losing a man she loved dearly and trying to protect her daughter from the collapse of that relationship, she delivered one of the most breathtaking examples of the genre in recent memory. The album opens with a simplistic line “Moments of clarity are so rare / I better document this.” We the listener should be immensely grateful she did just that.