Album Reviews

Vulnicura – Björk

Final Rating: 9.3/10

What a great start to the year. Björk’s new album is dropped merely days after it is announced, and it’s her best work in a decade. Well, the news is good for all but Björk herself. Her album Vulnicura, due originally in March (when the physical releases will still be available), leaked seventy days early. She couldn’t promote the album, and none of us could wait in anticipation. As Björk is no stranger to celebrating her releases (her swan dress when Vespertine was out, the app that accompanied Biophillia and the MoMA exhibit to be paired up with Vulnicura), it’s the emptiest build up to an album of hers since possibly ever. Once you hear the album in full, maybe it was for the best that it wasn’t too overblown. This is Björk’s Blue; An album that accompanies a singer’s struggles after a break up. Björk’s relationship with experimental artist Matthew Barney has come to an end after many years together, and Vulnicura monitors all of what happened through her eyes. 

The first three songs predate the separation, the next three are right after the big split and the final three are songs of resolution. For Björk, this was therapy. For us, we are given a very chilling concept album that does play like a story. We get Björk’s greatest lyrics in years; It’s just sad that we’re hearing Björk speak from a broken heart instead of her usual soaring spirit. Musically, she has teamed up with some big names including the recent producer phenomenon Arca (who worked on most of the album as a co-producer) and the spine tingling ambient creator The Haxan Cloak (who mixed the album). Björk claimed that producing this album herself would have taken years, but with the help of Arca and The Haxan Cloak, it was the quickest album she has ever made. With this concept, it’s good that it came out quickly so the album caught every drop as soon as it fell instead of trying to scoop up the remains of a past event. Most of the songs here are over six minutes, and the album is just under an hour long. It’s Björk’s folk album that has acoustic guitars and hand claps replaced with nervous strings and damning bass.

As it would be best to go through each song, Stonemilker starts the story off with Björk begging for her lover to keep trying. The cold string section tossed behind Björk’s wavering vocals sound like onlookers observing someone staring scared into the distance. We already know she is doomed for, as she tries to justify the situation. She implies that we have “emotional needs”, but that works in her favor with needing him, too.

As Stonemilker is reportedly “9 months” before the split, Lion Song is only 5 months prior, and we can already see a major deterioration. Björk is no longer even singing to her ex lover, as she is singing to herself in hopes that things will be alright. It’s like she was picking at a dandilion, hoping “he will come out of this loving me”, and worrying that “he won’t”. The song is indecisive, too, as it will either boldly state its point with upbeat music or it will have Björk’s layered vocals singing to themselves without any support. The clock is only clicking from here.

The History of Touches is now “3 months” until the break up. It is the shortest song on the album, and it’s sadly so; It tells of the last time Björk engaged in any sexual experience with her former adoration. She feels every single time they have had any form of physical contact within the very last time. Her voice is promising, but almost falsely so. The music will flitter and be persuaded by her hope, but then it will hit rock bottom and the bass will shake your head senseless. It’s the harsh reality of the situation hitting Björk repeatedly as she tries to dismiss the severity of it all.

But she cannot.

We don’t see the fight, but we feel the harsh realization with Black Lake. The very slow string section perfectly captures the sickness one feels when the truth finally enters one’s brain and their guilt enters their gut. There will be long passages of just a continuous string sound that will merely try to calm the situation but instead become anxious instead. This is Björk’s longest song, and she has a lot to say. She spews all of her anger towards Barney here. She complains in an imaginative Björk fashion (“I am a glowing shiny rocket returning home. As I enter the atmosphere, I burn off layer by layer”). The scariest part of, probably, any Björk song is the most straightforward line she has delivered in years: “Did I love you too much?”. It’s weird to hear Björk so blunt, as it is an issue that even she cannot try to make into another creation. The music is indecisive with what it wants to be, as anyone would be after they are alone for the first time following years of dependency.

“Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?” is the first line in the similarly titled song Family. It is “6 months” after, and Björk is finally recollecting her thoughts. She has acknowledged that her family will never be the same, and her twelve year old son has now seen an ugly side of what falling in love can do to people. Family is her most uncontrollable song as it shifts from a revving piece of ambience to a flurry of stringed hornets that stab and sting Björk. The song finally resolves itself in a depressing layer of digital mist, and it is one of the most stunning parts of any Björk song in quite some time. There isn’t a clear resolution, here; Only a partial dismissal, as the pain of it all was too much.

“11 months” after the tragic event and Björk is finding herself in a difficult spot. She has come to admit her need for her former companion, as she sings “I didn’t even notice for our love kept me safe from death”. She notices the void now present, and that death is more relevant than ever. At 49, this seems like a topic that has been surfacing for Björk a lot since her relationship dissolved. She begs Barney to see whether or not he “regret[s]” the destruction of their entity, and whether or not he fears death, too. The music is oddly uplifting, as if Björk is thinking about this morbid sense of self worth out in the open public; She cannot escape her new greatest fear.

Finally, the coming to grips begins with Atom Dance. “We are each others’ hemispheres”, Björk sings to signify that the world was complete with her and Barney together. This line is clever, because it implies that they are both on the opposite side of the globe and are now more distant than ever. The song implies that, because atoms make up everything and are coming and going constantly, that they are now new people. These reformed individuals need to find someone to love as “most hearts fear their own home”. She finds solace in common collaborator Antony Hegarty, but even Hegarty’s distorted vocals are not what we are used to. We are not crooned to as much as we are shattered. All that makes up Hegarty’s iconic voice are split apart, bringing awareness to the song’s theme that we are merely biology at work, and thus it is natural to love and to long for one.

Mouth Mantra seems to take place while Vulnicura was being made, as Björk’s say on the situation wasn’t heard until the release of the album. She fears that she may not ever be heard as she wasn’t at the present time. She may have found it hard to sing again, even though that is the very exercise that helped her the most here. She is self aware about what she means as not just a human being but as an artist: Who will believe her? The song sounds like it shuts itself down at times, as if her music career may have died as a result of her personal life. Whether she talks or sings about her recent events, she needs to be noticed once and for all.

She has been, and we are graced with Quicksand; Björk’s greatest song in a very, very long time. She realizes her importance as a mother and the ability to continue living through her own maternal figure. There is a line that is difficult to hear without being emotional: “Our mother’s philosophy; It feels like quicksand. And if she sinks, I’m going down with her”. Here, Björk is stating that she will go down a mother figure and take care of her child, as well as dying a motherly figure as her life gets sucked away at any time. The string section, which is absolutely gorgeous and a terrific way to end the album, ends up being put in reverse as the song closes, as if time is going backwards and Björk is questioning if she could fix everything if she were to have that superpower. Her lyrics say otherwise, as she plans to move ahead and be there for her child.

On the cover, Björk looks almost like the Virgin Mary with the blue shards making up her clothes and the yellow pieces making a halo. She is wearing a latex bodysuit that represents an open mind and a confined body. She is tortured but freeing herself at the same time. She has come out of this with her hands waving in the air. She sees herself as a figure pure enough to move on and comfortable enough to flaunt it; sexuality and cleanliness combined. Vulnicura leaked, but so what? Björk was proud for the world to hear it, and she bloody well should be. It’s her greatest work in a while, it’s a deeply affecting story and it’s an electronic thrill from start to finish. The brevity of how she feels is possibly a bigger surprise than the album’s release, and we may never get too used to seeing Björk being so open. This was her personal album, and damn, was it ever personal.

Download Vulnicura by Björk on iTunes

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.