Bjork - Vulnicura

by Rich Morris Rating:7 Release Date:2015-01-20

Everyone seems to be at it these days. You almost expect the next Chas ‘n’ Dave album to drop with zero fanfare on some file-sharing site. The tactic of releasing a record online with no warning has become a neat way for artists to keep control of their work while maximising media attention.

For Bjork, as with Madonna, it was borne of necessity after tracks from her new album, Vulnicura, were leaked online. Unlike Madonna, who’s engaged in some kind of sustained, Instagrammed sulk for the last couple of months, Bjork has thankfully handled the intrusion with characteristic humour, posting on Facebook: "I am so grateful you are still interested in my work. I appreciate every little bit!"

Of course, Bjork is no stranger to an unconventional album launch. Vulnicura was intended to accompany a retrospective of her career at New York's Museum of Modern Art in March, while previous album Biophilia was a multimedia project that came with a series of apps exploring the album's environmentalist themes.

Thus we have to cover everything around the album before we can actually get to the music itself. Its release may have garnered Bjork more press attention than she’s had since she wore that swan dress, but it would be surprising it this paid off in terms of sales, because Vulnicura is the starkest, bleakest set of songs she’s ever released.

The album’s centrepiece is ‘The Black Lake’, on which she solemnly sings “My soul/ torn apart/ and my spirit is broken” over weeping strings and sporadically burbling, clashing percussion. Over the course of its 10 minutes, it sounds first like Bjork is surveying a barren expanse of water, then wading into it, and finally drowning. It’s very much not ‘Big Time Sensuality Part II’.

Vulnicura details her separation from artist Matthew Barney and it does so in way that’s uncommonly upfront and straightforward for Bjork. On ‘Lionsong’, which exists somewhere between curdled doo-wop and spartan musical number, she tremblingly wonders if “maybe he’ll come through this loving me”, but the prematurely mournful nature of the music lets you know that won’t be the case.

This, then, is Bjork’s breakup album, and she’s done a fine job of it. Cello-guided opener ‘Stonemilker’ begins subdued and sad before rising to a chorus which explodes like a welcome burst of sunshine. It’s what passes for single material here.

At the other end of the extreme is ‘Family’, which starts like a dubstep remix of ‘Sadness’ by Ornette Coleman, with Bjork asking “Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?” Just when you think it’s building to some grand crescendo, it swiftly descends into frenzied string-plucking and unbridled, multi-tracked wailing. It’s probably the most challenging, confusing thing Bjork has ever done, and yeah, I know that’s saying something.

The album finally picks itself up a little with ‘Atom Dance’, on which mannered, chamber-pop plucking forms a bed for skittering beats and what sounds like a Jew's harp being seriously fucked with. It’s the closest thing Vulnicura has to a dance track and it features Antony Hegarty’s voice heavily looped and treated.  

To say Vulnicura as a whole is a tough, demanding listen will come as news to precisely no one who has been following Bjork’s artistic trajectory over the past 15-odd years. However, an album combining the chilly atmosphere of 1997’s Homogenic with Biophilia’s wilfully repetitive, obscure beats and textures is about as much fun as a nosebleed in an abattoir. In anyone else’s hands (say, Thom Yorke’s), Vulnicura would most likely be an unmitigated, intolerable nightmare. In Bjork’s, it’s certainly forbidding but also compelling.

It’s impossible not to admire the way Bjork retains the ability to sound effortlessly at the forefront of every development in electronic music. Here, she’s worked with FKA twigs producer and Kanye West collaborator Arca as well as experimental auteur The Haxan Cloak. She’s done this while still retaining her own identity and refining her music’s feel for summoning images of austere yet beautiful natural landscapes.

There’s no doubt that Bjork is one of the defining artists of our age, that her work will be talked about, picked apart, studied even, for years to come. There’s also little doubt that whatever she does next will come as a surprise.

However, while it’s easy to feel yourself bursting with admiration for her, it’s becoming harder and harder to simply enjoy her music. Even the high-concept, iconoclastic likes of Vespertine or Medúlla contained songs like ‘Triumph of a Heart’ or ‘Cocoon’ - gorgeous, inventive, deeply human songs you could lose yourself in and play on repeat. It’s just hard to imagine doing that with anything on Vulnicura, except perhaps, perhaps, ‘Stonemilker’.

Still, Vulnicura is no doubt exactly what its maker intended it to be: an unflinching document of a very difficult time in her life. It’s uncompromising, just like Bjork. 

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