Front cover of ‘Vulnicura’
by Ed Biggs
From the release of her debut album in 1993, Icelandic chanteuse Björk has been responsible for some of the most unique and forward-thinking pop music of the last two decades, and even before that as a member of The Sugarcubes. Groundbreaking albums like Homogenic (1998) and Volta (2007) helped shape the musical landscapes of the years that followed. Her last album, 2011’s Biophilia, was billed as a multimedia project, released as an interactive iPad app that saw the album’s themes linked to musicology concepts, natural phenomena and the earth’s resources. The digital release of her ninth major label release Vulnicura has been rushed due to a recent leak, though the physical release date is still set for March 23rd. Björk describes it as a “heartbreak album”, inspired by her recent separation from long-term partner Matthew Barney.
Arca, the 24 year old Venezuelan production wiz behind Kanye’s Yeezus and FKA twigs’ LP1, brings the new record to life, and along with the string arrangements by The Haxan Cloak he’s a perfect fit for Björk’s vision. While it’s less immediate and less beat-driven than Biophilia, the sonic architecture is no less breathtaking. Arca’s beautifully sculpted chains of beats and percussion are quite unlike anything else in pop, their sense of organised chaos reflecting the heartbroken nature of Björk’s songs.
While her anger and torment is detectable, as a great deal of her previous songs address (to some extent) intimacy, love and the turmoil therein, her production team moulds Vulnicura’s tracks into vast, formless head-spaces that don’t really resemble pop music at all. This reinforces Björk’s sense of disconnection and, artistically speaking, this approach works brilliantly, placing the record a cut above the more impenetrable moments on recent efforts. Paradoxically, for a heartbreak album, she sounds literally numbed by her own sense of abandonment, able to place herself outside of her own subject matter. It’s a trick she’s turned before, but rarely as well.
Take the ten minute centrepiece ‘Black Lake’, whose twisted, alien landscapes shift like tectonic plates over its running course. For just a moment, the subsonic beats settle into something resembling 4/4 rhythm, before it mutates into something else again. Natural, intimate imagery is Björk’s primary lyrical weapon – “our love was my womb but our bond has broken / and my shield is gone, my protection is taken”. The sinister ‘Lion Song’ evidences her disconnection: “these abstract complex feelings / I do not know how to handle them”. Opener ‘Stone Milker’ comes on like something from 2001’s Vespertine, with lush orchestral sounds backed with gentle, sensual beats. On this track alone, Björk uses key words that are scattered throughout Vulnicura: “emotions”; “respect”; “feelings”; “mutual”… is the kind of intimate thematic territory we’re in.
Verse-chorus-verse structures are practically non-existent on Vulnicura; instead, the songs are non-linear introspections whose musical surroundings are influenced by the author’s feelings at that precise moment, and Arca’s productions shift and change to fit themselves around Björk. The most immediate track ‘Notget’, the moment on here which could most easily fit into Biophilia, is built from keyboards that sound like wind chimes. Antony Hegarty, who previously appeared on Volta, is the only guest vocalist, and on ‘Atom Dance’ he interacts with Björk superbly over featherweight beats and indulgent strings. It’s in stark contrast to the following ‘Mouth Mantra’, on the surface the most upbeat moment, Arca’s stunning beats shimmering and slithering all over the place as it climaxes into a combination of tribal bass and swooping electronics. Each track is thematically similar because of the rudimentary building blocks involved, but the musical variety therein is wonderful to behold.
It’s virtually impossible to merely listen to this album in the background – instead, the elusive time signatures and semi-human, hyper-extended musical constructions demand your full attention. The average track is more than six minutes long, giving the music plenty of time and space in which to meander, expand and contract. Vulnicura is an album of great emotional and musical depth, that conceals new treasures each time you dive into it. It’s not quite got the accessibility of the more pop-leaning Homogenic, but in time it will surely come to be seen as one of Björk’s best, even amongst her exceptional back catalogue. (9/10)
Tags: Antony Hegarty, Arca, Bjork, One Little Indian, The Haxan Cloak, Vulnicura
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