“Moments of clarity are so rare/
I better document this”
Across the world, curious listeners and devoted fans downloaded the surprise-early-release of Björk’s Vulnicura, which we thought we would have to wait another two months for, and instead started our iTunes downloads to collectively hear a new Björk. A raw and decidedly direct Björk, far from the worldly warrior woman of Homogenic, or the domestically-blissed-out snow-wanderer of Vespertine.
As I heard these first few lines of opening track “Stonemilker,” it hurt to admit that a smile grew across my face. In terms of being a long-time, hardcore Björk fan, I knew in that moment I was hearing something special. There was so much speculation surrounding Vulnicura, especially as news would appear announcing the involvement of such producers as Arca (which to say is quite a big deal due to his work on Kanye West’s acclaimed Yeezus and FKA twigs’ debut, LP1), and the Haxan Cloak. No number of speculations could prepare listeners for a form of Björk we have never quite known: a confessional, straightforward Björk, honestly feeling her way through the darkness of a dissolving, decade-long relationship with partner and co-parent Matthew Barney.
And most surprisingly of all, the album is nothing more than the three main components of produced beats, percussion, and an entire string section composed by Björk. Her hands are all over these tracks, and through the news of this producer and that producer, there is no denying: this is strictly Björk’s vision. Heartbreak explored through her own own willingness to throw herself into new territory, and just dig, dig, dig her way out through visionary music. But when has any album not been Björk finding her way through boundary pushing music? Vulnicura feels different, in a cleansing way, both for the artist and listener.
The starkest difference between Vulnicura and Björk’s previous albums are the arrangements. While opening tracks “Stonemilker” and “Lionsong” possess what is closest to a typical bridge and chorus arrangement (both beautiful and aptly compared to Homogenic-era Björk), the remaining tracks are gorgeous compositions of melodic one-liners and experimental instrumentation. Similarly to Joanna Newsom’s masterful Ys, Björk feels through this darkness in her life by experimenting in the structure and length of songs. It is no longer just about pop music, but about the power of finding herself again through this experimentation.
The most exemplary track where this can be felt and heard, the center and heart and masterpiece of Vulnicura, is “Family.” “Family” is a three part, nakedly honest meditation on the state of Björk’s family (“Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?”) and the lingering dread of failure as a mother (“How will I sing us out of this sorrow?“). The track is not only a gorgeous representation of the collaboration between Björk, Arca, and the Haxan Cloak, but the album’s sonic thesis: a literal documentation of a heart breaking in half and, in the third movement of the song, the moment when it is begins to stitch itself whole once again, hopefully.
Vulnicura is a fitting title: it means the curing or closing of a wound. Closing track “Quicksand,” written about Björk’s own mother, is not a solid conclusion to heartbreak and moving on, but to the deeper meanings behind experiencing this wound and what this challenge will bring not just for Björk, but her daughter, and her daughter’s daughter. The track production gives the effect of her voice sinking and slipping away and returning once more, as she sings such lines as “when I am broken I am whole/and when I am whole I am broken.”
This wound is not just a vision of heartbreak, but overall self-reflection and Björk’s artistic triumph of working through that gaping and not-yet-healed wound. Not just personally for Björk, but for us all, there is something to be gained universally by being witness or listener to act in which someone heals in their own significant way.