Björk – Vulnicura


While some of her collaborators were already known, it was only last Wednesday that Björk confirmed the impending release of her eighth studio album proper. Announcing the album’s name as Vulnicura, and providing a list of song titles, her announcement – published via Facebook and Twitter – stated that the album would be out in March. Having apparently leaked over the weekend however, it appeared suddenly last night: Björk linking to iTunes and declaring that Vulnicura would be ‘rolling out worldwide over the next 24 hours’. Fortunately, the UK store was among the first to make the album available.

In a lengthy message on Facebook accompanying the album’s release, Björk describes Vulnicura as ‘a complete heartbreak album’. She cites the three-year period during which she worked on beats for 2001’s Vespertine. Then – desiring a move away from the big beats of Homogenic, towards ‘microbeats’ and an intimate, domestic sound palette; and contacting the Danish musician Thomas Knak, who under the name Opiate released in 1999 the delightful Objects for an Ideal Home – Björk took to her laptop, and Pro Tools became an important facet of her music.

She writes that while the songs for Vulnicura came quickly, impelled by her break from her longtime partner Matthew Barney, ‘to make beats to the songs would have taken me 3 years’. Fortuitously, in ‘late summer’ 2013, Björk was contacted by Alejandro Ghersi, who records and produces under the name Arca, and has previously worked on Kanye West’s Yeezus and with FKA twigs. Most of Vulnicura was subsequently programmed and produced with Björk and Arca working in tandem; with Björk composing the arrangements for strings and choir; and the British musician and producer The Haxan Cloak contributing to several tracks as well as mixing the album.

Björk’s Facebook message is worth quoting in full:

dear websitefolks , fans , tweeters and my music supporters on all the sorts of www :

vulnicura will be rolling out worldwide over the next 24 hours !!

i am so grateful you are still interested in my work !!

i appreciate every little bit !!!

i wanted to tell you the tale of making of this album

i guess i found in my lap one year into writing it a complete heartbreak album . kinda surprised how thoroughly i had documented this in pretty much accurate emotional chronology …. like 3 songs before a break up and three after . so the anthropologist in me sneaked in and i decided to share them as such . first i was worried it would be too self indulgent but then i felt it might make it even more universal . and hopefully the songs could be a help , a crutch to others and prove how biological this process is : the wound and the healing of the wound . psychologically and physically . it has a stubborn clock attached to it .

there is a way out

and then a magic thing happened to me : as i lost one thing something else entered . alejandro contacted me late summer 2013 and was interested in working with me . it was perfect timing . to make beats to the songs would have taken me 3 years ( like on vespertine ) but this enchanted arca would visit me repeatedly and only few months later we had a whole album !!! it is one of the most enjoyable collaboration i have had !

i then went ahead and wrote string and choir arrangements and recorded them in iceland

towards the end of the album i started looking around for a mixing engineer and was introduced by a mutual friend of ours , robin carolan to the haxan cloak . he mixed the album and also made a beat for one half of “family” . together with chris elms the engineer we kinda formed a band during the mixing process and this is the album we made !!!

i do hope you enjoy it

i would like to thank this overqualified little team ( where roles often blurred )

. i also would like to thank robin , his generous approvals gave me more courage to complete this as is .

and my group of songswapping / dj friends : the right tune can truly cure : ta for those sonic ointments

but most of all i would like to thank my team : james merry , derek birkett and emma birkett . rosemary and elisa . this album could not have been done without you

So Vulnicura records the ending of a committed relationship: one which lasted for more than a decade and gave the couple a daughter. The Vulnicura lyric booklet, which comes with downloads of the album, elucidates Björk’s Facebook post: song titles for the first six songs are subtitled with the time they were written: three and three, in chronological order, so many months before and so many months after the breakup.

The opener, ‘Stonemilker’, features swelling strings – violins, violas and cello – and spaciously pulsing beats. Björk paces out her vocals, gently lilting, but also sometimes hesitating – as on the word ‘juxtapositioning’, which itself juxtaposes with ‘fate’: fate can be smoothly if sorrowfully embraced, but the juxtaposition of diverging lives cannot – as she begins her document of heartbreak and loss.

Björk’s multiplicitous voice initiates ‘Lionsong’, before Arca’s production kicks in with sleek, skittering drums. In turn Björk suggests frustrated indifference, fear, and developing resignation. She begins and returns almost with a hope that love will cease: with love apparently reduced to nothing more than a remnant of an old flame, she considers ‘Maybe he will come out of this / Somehow I’m not too bothered’. But as the percussion develops, her vocals are foreboding, as she contrasts her resolution not to bow to her partner’s moods with an understanding of the pain that will be caused by the end of the relationship. There is a melodic interlude, upon the lines ‘Once it was simple / One feeling at a time’; and these melodic passages are characteristic of the songs on Vulnicura, whether serving as a way to segue between different passages of the same composition, or looping to provide a piece with added momentum. Ultimately, at the end of ‘Lionsong’, Björk stresses that she would ‘just like to know’ where she stands.

‘History of Touches’ emerges upon open, shimmering synths, which gradually deepen and become more complex. Touching upon ‘The Anchor Song’ from Debut, the track develops as an inversion of ‘Hyperballad’. In that song, Björk awakes early in the morning, leaving her lover asleep, before striding out onto a cliff’s edge so that she can better retreat to the certainty and safety of love. In ‘History of Touches’, Björk’s emotional climax is not atop a mountain, but in bed beside her lover, who she wakes in order to witness a moment impossibly profound: ‘I wake you up / In night feeling / This is our last time together / Therefore sensing all the moments / We’ve been together’.

‘Black Lake’ and ‘Family’ are the centrepieces of Vulnicura. ‘Black Lake’ marks a turn, as it is the first song on the album written after Björk’s relationship with Barney came to an end: the song is subtitled ‘2 months after’. Its opening is reminiscent of ‘You’ve Been Flirting Again’, but drawn out at a lower pitch. The volcanic burps and splutters of Homogenic appear but muted and spaced out, and underlie beautifully sustained chords and segments of building noise.

The words here are emboldened. Björk has been blistering in the past with regard to former lovers: most notably, the excoriating ‘5 Years’, and its follow-up ‘Immature’, are both asserted to have been written upon Björk’s breakup with Goldie back in the late 1990s. The tone on Vulnicura is consistently more tender as the sentiments run deeper; but Björk’s lyrics are still penetrating. She depicts her heart an ‘enormous lake / Black with potion’; and condemns her former partner, stating ‘You betrayed your own heart / Corrupted that organ / Family was always our sacred mutual mission / Which you abandoned’. She wonders whether she will ‘ever recover’; but before the song comes to a lingering close, Björk begins the endeavour of moving on, affirming herself as ‘a glowing shiny rocket / Returning Home / As I enter the atmosphere / I burn off layer by layer / Jettison’.

‘Family’ – with production also by The Haxan Cloak – advances in darkly forming, tensely rising synths, humming high-frequency static, and splintered tom-drum percussion. Unfolding her words questioningly, Björk wonders where she can mourn the death of her family, cast as a secular ‘miraculous triangle’, between father, mother, and child. A middle section of solo violin and cello serves as a jagged prelude before an electronic choir falls and encompasses Björk’s voice. She perceives a ‘swarm of sound / Around our heads / And we can hear it / And we can get healed by it’; and seeks solace in this ‘universe of solutions’. After the harsh discourse of the preceding songs, this universe is one into which the slowburning close to ‘Family’ carefully steps.

‘Notget’ is, as the title indicates, a compound: at once a disavowal of the end of the relationship as the terminus of life and love; and at the same time an affirmation of the willingness and the need not to regret its occurrence. The song appears with distorted Asiatic keys; and features clipped beats, blips, and percussive shuffles. There are echoes of ‘Moon’ from Biophilia as Björk’s far-off voice repeats ‘Love will keep us safe from death’.

In the Vulnicura booklet, a photograph of Björk in her Vulnicura attire – tightly fitting black rubber suit and umber rubber gloves; with a pink, vaginal orifice at her chest; and her head and shoulders adorned with sharp neon yellow and blue seeds, like a dangerous dandelion – demarcates the first six timestamped songs from the three that follow. And ‘Atom Dance’ – which begins with Björk’s lone voice, as she declares ‘We are each other’s hemispheres’ – moves brightly into a jaunting, looped rhythm. Now Björk has some distance. ‘Atom Dance’ universalises the specific sentiments of the first six songs: ‘we’ becomes a general ‘we’, as she sings ‘We aim at peeling off / Dead layers of loveless love’, and ‘No one is a lover alone’.

Strings are plucked, the song’s clip-clopping beat resumes, and while the music bubbles and pops, Antony enters the mix cut up, jarred noise dragging across his voice. He opens out, and he and Björk sing together, overlapping and in chorus. Antony allows Björk’s voice to briefly soar over the top, as on their previous collaboration, the majestic ‘The Dull Flame of Desire’. Then as the song comes to an end, Björk’s vocalising provides the backdrop over which Antony clasps.

‘Mouth Mantra’ and the album finale, ‘Quicksand’, move towards drum and bass patterns. ‘Mouth Mantra’ was co-written by Oddný Eir: an Icelandic writer who has won several Icelandic literary prizes, and was awarded a European Union Prize for Literature last year for her 2011 novel Jarðnæði (translated as Land of love, plan of ruins). The composition features fractions and layerings of choir, as Björk reclaims her own voice and asks ‘Now I sacrifice this scar / Can you cut it off?’. A busy beat and an ethereal vocal track, laid atop throaty fragments, prove the soundscape for Björk’s closings words on ‘Quicksand’. She swirls, ‘When I’m broken I am whole / And when I’m whole I’m broken’; and fades out, before a sharp cut, with both a plea and a vow for her daughter and the descent of her daughters.

Vulnicura is perhaps Björk’s most ‘written’ album since 2004’s Medúlla: with Voltaic a combination of romanticism and boldly declarative, tribal statements which play especially strongly live; and Biophilia comprising abstract sounds and atypical forms alongside delicate music-box melodies. As an aesthetic package, she again appears startlingly ahead of any curve or trend. Whatever: eight albums into her mature solo career – augmented by her earlier group work, her two soundtracks, and a host of other wonderful material released across box sets, singles and EPs – Björk has produced another work of outstanding beauty, at moments angry, but always compassionate and willing to explore the extent of her emotions, which once again stands firmly within yet entirely distinct from the rest of her catalogue. We are proud and we are invigorated to live in the same time as her.

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