Vulnicura review

The Quietus, 22 janvier 2015

Well, this isn’t what I hoped for from my new Björk album at all. I wanted, after Biophilia’s crowning glory, a sparky fresh start. I wanted harsh beats, crackling energy, new ideas. What I got is a mortuary slab of cold, heavy pain, forensically picked over. Saying that, Vulnicura probably wasn’t exactly what Björk hoped for either. But life happens to you, doesn’t it ? And Björk is the kind of person who, when life hands her a breakup, is going to make the monolithic mother and father of all breakup albums.

"Breakup album" seems a trite term, a genre too trivially mopey to fit this unflinching, devastating exploration. That sounds melodramatic, but Vulnicura is so intimate in its agonies, so clinical in its dissection that your brain, listening, tries to hide from it as if the pain was its own ; and, as if the pain was its own, cannot.

The CD booklet makes clear how much this is a chronological diary of disaster, dating the songs according to their months before and months after Björk’s split with Matthew Barney. The opening track, ’Stonemilker’, finds Björk trying to shore up collapsing love, while at the same time noting : "moments of clarity are so rare ; I better document this".

The sombreness of the music throws more weight on her words than ever before. Already it’s clear that if you’ve come here seeking beats and bangers, you may as well be asking for poppers at a funeral ; beautiful and stately as the cortege that Björk has crafted with her co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak is, this focus of this album is on the play of feelings. From the strings that sweep us in, we’re in a very familiar sonic Björkland, but sparely drawn. The solutions too, that she offers to her situation are, at first, familiar. Björk’s work, whether on a personal or social level, has always advocated emotional bravery and honesty, going at life, as here, "open-chested". So it’s all the more devastating when it doesn’t work.

’Lionsong’s oddly chorused vocals only make Björk’s voice sound even more alone. There’s a huge, sad strength and defiance to it, but not the kind that wants, you’re-gonna-hear-me-roar style, to celebrate itself : "Maybe he’ll come out of this loving me/Maybe he won’t/Somehow I’m not too bothered either way". Over the song’s halting structures, she’s never sounded more laid-open and vulnerable. And indeed, the title of the album, Vulnicura, suggests not just the search for a cure, but a scientific classification of vulnerability ; Björk the naturalist, sticking pins in her own pain and carefully taxonomising it.

’History Of Touches’ finds her doing this even as the ship sinks ; seizing and multiplying the moment with memories before it slips away, trying to be in the relationship as hard as possible. It’s heartbreaking, like an anti-’Hyperballad’. Whereas in that song, the narrator committed small acts of violence as her lover slept in order to exist more comfortably in the confines of a couple, here she wakes her partner to try and hold those confines down as the song’s textures flicker.

It’s beautiful as well as awful, but you know what’s coming.’Black Lake’ ; the sound of a near bottomless-rock bottom ; a Baikal of the dumped. Björk’s voice is unbearable here, the strings devastatingly soft. "My soul torn apart/My spirit is broken/into the the fabric of all/He is woven." This song is also, thank god, the turning point. Though, as you’d expect with a real grief, Vulnicura doesn’t plot a smooth arc back to health and happiness, there is a progression through these songs. ’Black Lake’s 10 minutes is split with little caesuras, which feel like blank spaces beyond words. By the end of it, after a quiet crisis of ghostly beats and a string swell that grows to painful intensity, we find Björk starting to unpick that woven fabric, and facing outward in anger ; "Did I love you too much ? […] You have nothing to give/Your heart is hollow".

These sort of condemnations of those who don’t stay true to love’s guiding principle are familiar from listening to the likes of ’5 Years’ from Homogenic, but this time it’s not enough to shake it off with a hearty, "Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger" and dance off into the next experience ; in the last verse, she becomes a "glowing shiny rocket" burning off grief-layers in an atmospheric trial-by-fire. The really great thing about this heavy, intense album, as punishing as it is beautiful in its resolve, is that it shakes to the core the philosophies that Björk laid out so methodically on Biophilia, but she still finds a dark difficult way back to hope and love.

By ’Family’, plagued by skittering beats like gnats, she’s already striving forward : "How will I sing us out of this sorrow ? Build a safe bridge for the child ?" By the end, amid shimmering textures that recall the album version of ’All Is Full Of Love’, she is raising "A monument of love/A swarm of sound […] It will make us a part of this universe of solutions".

Of course, it’s not going to be quite so easy, and ’Notget’ asserts Björk’s continued right to grieve, 11 months on. She will neither regret nor forget her love : "Don’t remove my pain/It is my chance to heal". The rhythms of the album here begin to quicken and throb with little martial drumrolls and string stabs, though the song’s final mantra, "Love will keep us safe from death", is trotted out bitterly, with the tone of one who can’t quite get good advice down their gullet just yet ; as Björk keeps repeating it, her wordless cries reverberate, lost, further back in the mix.

’Atom Dance’ takes comfort in Biophilias’ ideas of love as the driving force on a cellular and subatomic level, Antony Hegarty’s sorrowing moo a great foil to Björk’s keener pain. "I am finetuning my soul to the universal wavelength/No one is a lover alone […] let this ugly wound breathe".

The emotional disinfection continues on ’Mouth Mantra’, which heralds the return of Björk’s voice ; whether from couplehood or depression it isn’t clear, except perhaps in the last line : "I have followed a path that took sacrifices/Now I sacrifice this scar/Can you cut it off ?" The track breaks out in glitchy beats and chorused swoops, yet there’s little jubilance. It’s easy to read this track, even the whole album, in a simple way, along with Björk’s late feminist flourishing ; domesticity is stifling, creativity is freedom. Yet it’s more often the betrayal of love and family, rather than their limitations, that are mourned on Vulnicura. That said, the ideas of surrender and and stifling also appear on Biophilia’s ’Sacrifice’ (which Björk said at the time was about a friend of hers) and the unequal burden often born by women in relationships seems to be on her mind.

’Quicksand’, the most animated song, concludes the album and the healing process, its beats clipping along above the abyss, buoyed by little backing vocals. Strength is found by looking outward to a different idea of family ; the roles of mother and daughter become blurred in a matriarchal chain that doesn’t always sound too cosy. Is it Björk who is being spoken about in third person by the "generation of mothers… an everlasting necklace" who were celebrated in Biophilia’s ’Hollow’, or is it her own child ? ""If she sinks/I’m going down with her … When we’re broken we are whole/And when we’re whole we’re broken… every time you give up, you take away our future/And my continuity and my daughter’s".

It’s something to hang on to, but it’s not exactly comfort. Vulnicura’s recovery ends not with the warm fuzzy glow of the last item on a listicle about the stages of heartbreak, but with a tired, pale creature limping, battered and drained, out of a Pandora’s box from which all the black shrieking hellbats have finally streaked. Because even it’s not what anyone had hoped for, there’s always fucking bastard hope, isn’t there ?

par Emily Mackay publié dans The Quietus