By Hollister Dixon
It should really come as no surprise to anybody who has ever listened to me talk about my favorite subcategory of music, otherwise known as “sad bastard music”, that I’ve long been a collector of miserabilia. Since I was very young, I gravitated towards music made by sad people about sad things, in a way that felt less like emotional schadenfreude, and more like commiseration. It’s hard to really explain why I am the way I am, but the subtle art of heartwrenching songwriting is something I treasure and hold dear whenever I find it.
It’s weird to hold the concept of “breakup music” in my mind while thinking about Björk. She’s always been an incredibly personal songwriter, to the degree that her most tender, or beautiful, or pained music feels as though she made the songs as a way of trying to simply feel just a little less than she does after she’s done. Bitterness, however, is an emotion I’m not used to. Searching through her catalog, it’s hard to find a song that I would call “bitter”, much less a full album of those songs. And yet, here on Vulnicura, Björk’s 9th album, we find the artist singing about abandonment and betrayal and loss in ways that feel almost alien.
Vulnicura‘s structure is meant to emulate the steady and painful decline of the artist’s relationship with her longtime partner/collaborator/father-of-her-child Matthew Barney, a progression which is annotated in the album’s liner notes. The album’s opener, “Stonemilker”, is labelled as “9 months before” (most likely in the final strains of that relationship, where it was obvious that the end was near but was far enough out that it could still be saved), and goes up to “11 months after” with “Notget”, with intimate moments in between – some broad, and some incredibly precise (“History of Touches” documents, in painful detail, the exact moment the relationship died). Like any great breakup record (I’m looking right at you, Blood on the Tracks), Vulnicura is one that will never be separated from the reason it exists, which is a shame, considering how emotionally resonant the album’s material is even without the backstory.
With that in mind, for just a moment, let’s talk about the album itself: after repeated listens, this album holds up as some of Björk’s strongest material to date in both songwriting and arranging, on par with the superhuman craftsmanship of Homogenic and Vespertine. Her style is 100% unmistakable, and even though she worked with two brilliant producers (Venezuela’s Arca and Yorkshire’s Haxan Cloak), their styles merge perfectly with her’s to the point where it’s very easy to forget that she didn’t do everything herself. The music swings wildly from discordant beats (“Notget”) to perfect string arrangements (“Stonemilker”), and despite the sometimes disparate styles, nothing ever feels out of place. The sequencing is close to perfect, and even though Antony & the Johnsons’ frontperson Antony Hegarty feels incredibly out of place in “Atom Dance”, I couldn’t imagine the song without her voice on it.
There’s a lot of familiar touches on opener “Stonemilker”, right down to the way she sings certain words. Here, she the ascension of her voice on the phrase “Show me” echoes that of Medulla‘s “Show Me Forgiveness”, which is followed by a variation of the word “Emotional” (notice the way she enunciates that “oh” sound) all the way back on “Joga”, and there’s even a subtle nod to Biophilia‘s “Mutual Core” in the phrase “mutual coordinate”. It’s not clear if these choices are intentional or not – it may just be the nature of Björk fandom that leads me to notice the unintended – but these small touches feel as though they subtly tie the world of Vulnicura – a world concerned with attempting to move forward and heal – with the world behind her, with everything painful and wonderful that that entails. Even the song’s sweeping strings and beats feel like a definite throwback to the classical-tinged arrangements of Homogenic. That this song is the only song on the record produced solely by Björk herself is no accident: despite the fact that she’s still clinging onto hope in some ways, it’s really just her out there on the ice.
As the album progresses, Björk’s words go through every possible stage of grief, though in an often mixed (and repeated) order. She goes from Acceptance (“Maybe he will come out of this loving me / Maybe he won’t / Somehow I’m not bothered either way”) to potent Anger (“You have nothing to give / Your heart is hollow”) to pained Acceptance (“Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?”) everywhere in between. Inexplicably, the anger is where she really shines; the album’s blistering 10-minute centerpiece, “Black Lake”, is an acid-tongued anthem for a scorned lover (“You fear my limitless emotions / I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions / Did I love you too much?”) that takes aim not just at the idea of being left personally, but at the idea of her family being torn apart by that event (“Family was always our sacred mission / which you abandoned”). Here, the daughter of Björk and Matthew Barney plays an unspoken role as the collateral damage of the relationship’s dissolution. This is somehow a unique perspective in the pantheon of breakup albums: those that are affected by the fallout. Throughout Vulnicura, Björk sings about “we” almost as frequently as she does about “me”, and each of those moments comes from a place of pain and fear, but never defeat.
It’s hard not to want to quote a lot of this record when talking about all of the emotions on it. For every lyric you read in the last paragraph, there’s maybe five more that would have worked just as well. Though Björk has always been an incredibly talented songwriter, on Vulnicura that talent is brought straight to the very front in a way that it never quite has been. There’s never really a moment where her words aren’t clear or precise, and if ever they are, the album’s immaculate production and programming help guide the listener. On that front, it’s hard to understate how much of a masterstroke it was for her to team up with Arca and Haxan Cloak. Both are forward-thinking to the point of feeling almost aggressive (this is more true of Arca than of Haxan Cloak, however), and though their touches are easy to catch if you’re really paying attention, their work seamlessly blends into hers without ever losing who they are as producers. From the lurching mass of strings and beats that propels “History of Touches” to the sparse throb of “Black Lake”, every touch feels absolutely crucial to the structure of the album. There’s even a few incredible headphones moments, like the subtle vocal panning in “Quicksand” when it sounds like her voice is actually splitting apart and coming back together when she sings “When I’m broken, I am whole And when I’m whole, I’m broken.” It’s a touch very few people will ever notice, but for those that do, it makes all the difference.
On “Notget” (the last song labelled with a timestamp in the liner notes, here being “11 months later”), there’s a line that feels more brave than almost anything else on the record: “Don’t remove my pain / It is my chance to heal”. With Vulnicura, Björk has created a perfectly-crafted time capsule of that pain, and as a result, she’s given the world not just a piece of her suffering, but a glimpse into her own journey to find peace in the aftermath of emotional loss. It’s easy to want to dissect every single moment moment like this one on a record like this, or compare it to those before it. Despite all the heartbreak and pain and suffering, and the fact that it will never be separated from that part of the album’s existence, Vulnicura is an album that stands tall as one of the most solid and cohesive works in her already stunning catalog, and is an almost perfect example of how to grieve and, after everything, begin to feel human again.