Album Review: Björk—“Vulnicura”

By Marko Cindric

With a career spanning eight albums prior to the release of Vulnicura each album possessing its own soul and personality — it’s difficult to even begin to understand Björk outside the context of her textual self. As a direct result of her art, the multitalented experimental artist often seems elevated, larger than life. The release of Biophilia in 2011 only served to drive this conception home, with Björk assessing the universe’s creation, shifting tectonic plates, exploring the cells beneath our skin, as though she were an omniscient deity. Biophilia was driven by an insatiable desire to make sense of the universe in all its chaotic beauty, and while it was chiefly preoccupied with the universe without, Vulnicura seeks to do the same with the universe within.

Vulnicura, coproduced by Björk with Arca and the Haxan Cloak, is an intimately personal record, documenting Björk’s emotional state following the dissolution of her relationship with visual artist Matthew Barney. Both in lyrical content and delivery, Björk’s sorrow is evident, put on display in a fleeting bout of courage: “Moments of clarity are so rare / I better document this,” she coos on Vulnicura’s opening track, “Stonemilker.” Across the album, we follow her words as they wind down confused emotional pathways, punctuated by warm strings, sparingly-employed synthesizers, and electronic beats that call to mind samples from Homogenic and Vespertine. The instrumentation throughout Vulnicura is kept relatively basic, yielding to the lyrical content and allowing Björk’s vocals to carry much of the album’s weight.

Album art for Vulnicura

Album art for Vulnicura

“History of Touches,” the third track on the record and one of only two that clock in under four minutes, easily stands out as a dominant track. Its entirely synth-driven, beatless instrumentation represents a turning point in the album, and in the narrative of Björk’s relationship: in the liner notes, the track features the subtitle “3 months before,” with the following track “Black Lake” — another standout track if only for its devastating lyrics — bearing the caption “2 months after.” “Notget” sees Björk asserting the importance of leaning into her sorrow, recognizing the opportunity to learn from loss amid synth stabs that reveal Arca’s unmistakable presence. Following his duets on Bjork’s 2007 record Volta, Antony Hegarty returns to share vocal duties on the beautifully airy “Atom Dance,” spiralling around Björk as the two declare: “No one is a lover alone / most hearts fear their own home.”

Vulnicura, while bursting at the seams with rich lyrical content and lush instrumentals, does occasionally fall into the trap of drudging through sonic ideas that struggle to evolve beyond their initial state. “Lionsong,” clocking in at just over six minutes, exhibits a strange hesitancy to stray far from the motifs it establishes within its first sixty seconds. The first three minutes of “Family” fall into a similar trap. While this may actually strengthen the concept of the album — perhaps representative of the struggle to break through enclosing walls of sadness, and the degree of patience and introspection required to do so — the tracks just seem to fall short from a musical standpoint, relying too heavily on the listener’s investment in the lyrics. Fortunately, save for the aforementioned “Lionsong,” Vulnicura is a testament to Björk’s proficiency with words and her ability to enunciate human emotion better than many of her contemporaries.

While it may not hold up in relation to classic Björk albums such as the likes of Homogenic and Post, Vulnicura’s true strength lies in woman who created it. As a deeply intimate yet unabashedly public act of catharsis, Björk asserts her resilience, transforms her grief into an energy of creation, and by bringing us along for the journey, ultimately serves as a universal encouragement to do the same. (One Little Indian)

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