THE TRAJECTORY EXPLORED ON VULNICURA (PROGRESSIVELY: A HEART BREAKING, BROKEN, HEALING AND THEN MENDED) IS A PATH COMMON TO ALL AT ONE TIME OR ANOTHER – AND ONE WHICH IS FUNDAMENTAL TO POPULAR MUSIC, TRAVELLED MANY TIMES OVER. BUT IT IS THE WAY IN WHICH BJÖRK EXPLORES IT ON HER NEW ALBUM THAT MARKS HER OUT AS SEEMING TO HAVE, ONCE AGAIN, SET DOWN SOMETHING ORIGINAL AND UNIQUE.
Announced last weekend as due for release in March (but ‘rolling out’ on iTunes worldwide right now in an effort to mop up the online leak that sprang a couple of days back), Björk’s ninth studio album represents one of her strongest – and what always feels as if it must be most personally revealing – bodies of work; located somewhere between the dramatic eruptions on 1997’s HOMOGENIC and the intricate confidences given in 2001’s VESPERTINE. Gone is the sociological sci-fi / EDM party of VOLTA (2007) and gone are the high academic concepts of 2011’s BIOPHILIA, which examined the relationship between technologies and the natural universe. In their places is a collection of deeply affecting diary entries from one side of a relationship between human being and human being. The end of it serves as an axis point; disintegration charted over the course of the first three tracks and consequences on the following three – each song is given a definite position along a time-line in the accompanying sleeve-notes; eg. opener STONEMILKER’s “nine months before” and NOTGET’s “eleven months after” – with a new way of living eventually evolving from out of the debris for the final three. VULNICURA may be Björk’s break-up album (broken heart detailed as often in her breathtaking string arrangements as her lyrics), but it resolves with hope. From stagnation and fragility to defiance and forward motion it is also deliberately choreographed as a tool for healing. The title itself, another one of her invented words, says it all. “Hopefully the songs could help others and prove how biological the process is: the wound and the healing of the wound,” says Björk. “Psychologically and physically, it has a stubborn clock attached to it”.
STONEMILKER is beautiful – probably the most accessible, or least avant-garde, moment here and without doubt one of Björk’s finest songs to date. In its dignified tempo and the ways in which it combines electro-filtered beats with classical orchestration it is reminiscent of JÓGA – though it’s a much more subdued state of emergency as it begins; the singer at a loss and lonely, but still hopeful. Her use of a tentative ingenue-child’s voice to begin the song signifies Björk’s trust and earnest intent, but the staccato delivery of the opening line – “A jux-ta-po-si-tio-ning fate” – sets up the notion of a couple existing at odds, broken and heading towards the something that has seemingly become inevitable. There is damage in the lines of communication, or an unwillingness – perhaps even an inability – by one party to be open; the stone that must be milked. As the strings begin to flood in with much more confidence there is a plea for mutuality in the dropping of defences, in itself an enormous act of faith and expression of love. “All that matters is who is open-chested” she sings, echoing the sleeve, where a stylised figure’s vulnerable inner workings are exposed, before asking “Who has shut down the chances?” with no little disappointment. Finally, as the orchestra’s crescendo reaches some kind of pressure valve, her voice releases and she is bold: “Show me some emotional respect / I wish to synchronise our feelings”. It’s a far cry from the for granted interweavings of UNRAVEL or the unbidden tender kindnesses of UNDO.
It is a wonder where VULNICURA could possibly go from here such is the intensity already built and with, in old-fashioned money, the writing on the wall; seemingly only one person fighting to salvage something. Where it goes is LION SONG which, at the most basic melodic level, has something of the old Hollywood musicals about it – a genre Björk has embraced in the past, though this time there is a sad flipside to the intoxication expressed in LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE and the joys in IT’S OH SO QUIET. Again string arrangement dominates, though LION SONG begins with a multiple-voiced a cappella section as the scene is set. “Should I throw oil on one of his moods?” our frustrated heroine asks, a scene or two later. “But which one? Make the joy peak? Humour peak? Frustration peak? Anything peak / For clarity”. There’s exasperated humour in the pay off: “Somehow I’m not too bothered / I’d just like to know”. Floating over a bed of glitchy, recurring, electronica – like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy (which serves to reinforce the point) – the ambient HISTORY OF TOUCHES is the chemistry of sex boiling over for the final time in late night tiredness and a generous nostalgia; “Every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time-lapse with us here in this moment”. The end of the relationship is in sight. HISTORY OF TOUCHES is positioned just “three months before”, though there is no blow-by-blow account of the moment itself when it arrives; as if that absence is the VULNICURA healing tool’s homework assignment. Or, perhaps, it was mundane, unremarkable; an e-mail message, a kiss on the cheek in the subway station, a chat about the cats. A non-drama. Or, in artistic terms, for Björk perhaps it was just too private to share. A truly hidden place.
VULNICURA becomes much more difficult from there. By the time the fourth track begins the song-cycle is positioned at “two months after”. Ten minute BLACK LAKE is a bleak unfolding sprawl (“I am blind / Drowning in this ocean”), no horizon on view in any direction, and again a point is reinforced by the construction – an apparently never-ending length. This is Björk in the abyss; adrift and as wounded as she’s ever been (“No hope in sight of ever recover”) – but, as the song shifts between smothering layers of strings and moments of big-beat clarity, something astonishing begins to happen in its closing section. She allows anger to rise up and consume (“Family was always our sacred mutual mission, which you abandoned / You have nothing to give”) before she begins to let go, to shed the hurt and acclimatise to new circumstance (“I am a glowing shiny rocket returning home / As I enter the atmosphere I burn off layer by layer”). The deeply maternal FAMILY (set “six months after”) sees a continuance of the healing; not only that of the couple’s daughter but perhaps of Björk’s own innocence and trust (“How will I sing us out of this sorrow / Build a safe bridge for the child”). The philosophical closer (of the song cycle, at least) is positioned at “nine months after”. NOTGET is in some ways at sonic odds with the rest of the cycle (shifting, anxious), though there is a reinforced, or renewed, faith in the powers of love (“In love we are immortal, eternal and safe from death”). There is even gratitude, of sorts (“I will not forget this notget”). There is an awareness that damage – even an unfathomable rupture in the fabric of our being – is an essential aspect of the human condition (“If I regret us / I’m denying my soul to grow”). The wound and the healing of the wound. At first ATOM DANCE, which begins the final third of the album (none of which is given a clear position on the timeline, but all of which takes place after the aftermath), seems as if it could be a cosmic hangover from BIOPHILIA with a mention of “the universal wavelength” and the notion that “we are each other’s hemispheres”. But the duet – with vocals shared by Antony Hegarty – makes sense as a hopeful part of the post-healing; the openness to there being ‘another someone’ with whom it’s possible to chime in harmony.
Though VULNICURA mostly signals only a slight return from the more esoteric areas of the head music Björk has explored since MEDÚLLA in 2004, it’s an album which is easy to relate to at the heart level – and particularly so STONEMILKER, which adds much new credence to the old idea that a break-up can make for some truly great music.
Buy VULNICURA on iTunes here