Review: Björk's Big Time Emotionality

Björk teams up with Venezuelan phenom Arca and delivers her most devastating and luxuriant record since Homogenic.
bjork vulnicura

opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >

It’s time we bid a fond, and final, farewell to the avant-pop singer who once danced atop a flatbed truck in the middle of New York City. That version of Björk has been off, wandering among the clouds ever since her laptop unleashed the hushed and humble Vespertine in 2001. Björk’s first three LPs endure as monuments to sonic experimentation and, more importantly, exquisite popcraft. Debut and Post may have anticipated the seismic shift Radiohead would bring with OK Computer and Kid A. But it was Homogenic, her frozen masterpiece, which struck the ideal balance between sky-high melodies and bold aural landscapes. The all-vocal Medúlla, however impressive it was as an a cappella exercise,plunged Björk down a cerebral rabbit hole, from which Volta and Biophilia halfheartedly attempted to emerge. For those of us who still relish her earliest solo work, each new album after the remarkable Selmasongs — which accompanied her star turn in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark — has brought increasing frustration and dismay.

The huge surprise with Vulnicura is not its sudden release, which follows an untimely leak, two months early. It’s that we can at last embrace Björk, the Artist with a very self-conscious capital A, on her own terms without a hint of disappointment and a minimal amount of oh brother eye rolling. For this we can credit two big life events: one personal and disastrous, the other professional and fortuitous. The former is the dissolution of Björk’s romantic partnership with Matthew Barney, which is the topic of this devastating nine-track cycle. The latter is her newfound artistic partnership with the Venezuelan producer Arca (Kanye West, FKA twigs), who pulls the reins on her worst tendencies, and also encourages her best. For once in a long while, her “abstract complex feelings,” as Björk calls them on “Lionsong,” are earthbound and recognizably human.

Vulnicura Bjork

Björk presents Vulnicura as a harrowing triptych of smaller triptychs. Its first three compositions (and, make no mistake, these are indeed compositions, rather than mere songs) outline the preamble to romantic demise (“Stonemilker,” “Lionsong,” “History of Touches”). The middle trio, also the weirdest of the bunch (and that’s saying a lot), recounts the aftermath of breakup (“Black Lake,” “Family,” “Notget”). Vulnicura concludes, scabs off, with its final trilogy, still pink and fresh, healed but raw nonetheless (“Atom Dance,” “Mouth Mantra,” “Quicksand”). As the album unfolds chronologically, it also unfurls stylistically — from sinuous balladry, to fractured balladry, to hyper-balladry. It’s only fitting that Björk’s take on Blood on the Tracks would hew to such strict formalism.

That said, Vulnicura is far from hermetic. “Family,” the lone track produced by the Haxon Cloak, who also had a hand in mixing the album, unravels into a chaos of vocal-choir chanting, atonal string chords, and splintered electronics. The ostinato stabs of “Notget” recalls Bernard Herrman’s immortal Psycho score. “Quicksand,” a sister to Homogenic’s manic “Pluto,” ends Vulnicura with a potential heart attack. And then there’s “Black Lake,” the album’s ten-minute-plus centerpiece. It swells with a warm glow, shifts abruptly into rapid electro pandemonium, cedes to a drone, and ultimately births a lilting violin solo. Björk’s vocal instrument meets these sonic cartwheels in kind, pliant and always striking. If “Black Lake” is Vulnicura’s most technically impressive piece, the dazzling opener “Stonemilker” is its most emotionally moving (and that’s saying a lot). Here Björk returns to the string-laden splendor of “Jóga" and “Isobel” and “Bachelorette.” The remainder of Vulnicura may not reach this same, soaring height, but it basks in the afterglow, luxuriant through and through even at its thorniest.

And yet, this is not a dinner party soundtrack, to be played at low levels with wine and cheese. Vulnicura is a harsh and demanding album, one to sink into with a good set of headphones. But it’s also Björk’s most — if not first — personal record. Her new album wipes from memory all the sterile, intellectual constructions that precede it. Björk appears on its cover art, clad in shiny black leather, with a gash down her torso. Her heart has been torn from her chest. On Vulnicura, she offers it to us, in her palm, still bloody and beating mightily. A-

This review was originally posted Jan. 23, 2015. It has been republished to celebrate the album's physical release on Mar. 23, 2015.