It’s not an easy listen, but a brave, beautiful and affecting album.
Björk’s last album, 2011’s ‘Biophilia’, was a multimedia project examining the connections between nature, sound and technology – or “the universe”, as she succinctly put it. It became known as an “app” album and it wasn’t a gimmick. It made a powerful (and fun) statement about how the 49-year-old’s home country, Iceland, could be run after the financial crisis, instantly making almost everyone else operating in the field of popular music seem a bit thick.
‘Vulnicura’, her eighth full-length, appears to forgo the grand gesture by concentrating on the personal within a very established format – the breakup album. But as Björk herself said on Facebook when the record was rush-released on 20th January (a consequence of it leaking the weekend previous), “First I was worried it would be too self-indulgent, but then I felt it might make it even more universal.”
Opener ‘Stonemilker’ is set, according to the liner notes, nine months before her breakup from American artist Matthew Barney – father of her second child. On it, Björk sings, “I better document this”. Perhaps what’s most shocking about ‘Vulnicura’ is not that it’s a traditional, straightforward set of songs (that’s just Björk not repeating herself), but how true a document of real life it is. There’s less allegory and metaphor in the lyrics than usual, resulting in Barney getting a very direct kicking. Communicating with him is like “milking a stone” she sings on ‘Stonemilker’; by ‘Black Lake’ – set two months after the breakup – she’s bored of his “apocalyptic obsessions” and accusing him abandoning their family.
So raw is the lyrical narrative (it ends ambiguously with three undated tracks that offer no real resolution, but some optimism), it almost distracts from how clever and detailed the musical backdrop is. Masterful string arrangements by Björk (‘Lionsong’, ‘Family’) express matters of the heart with the same candour as the words, while Venezuelan producer Arca’s fractured, difficult beats (‘Lionsong’, ‘Notget’) – often in uncommon time signatures – reflect the disruption to Björk’s real-life rhythm. It’s not an easy listen, but a brave, beautiful and affecting album – an attempt to find order in chaos that, as she wishes for it, offers a “crutch” to the heartbroken.