Album Review: Bjork, 'Vulnicura'

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Bjork, 'Vulnicura'
Bjork, 'Vulnicura' (© 2015 One Little Indian Records.)

   If you have followed Björk's solo career since its beginnings in the early '90s — when she took permanent leave of rock as we know it, after departing her band the Sugarcubes — you know she has been on increasingly shaky terms with the standard forms of song structure and instrumentation ever since. And as Björk's tether to the familiar has thinned, her lyrical themes have become increasingly cerebral. 2011's Biophilia was nothing less than a meditation on nature, music, technology and the cosmos.

Perhaps the time was right for Björk to re-explore to some of the more familiar lyrical turf of popular music — take leave of the world of cell nuclei and take up, say, a love song or two. As it happened, though, Björk's inspiration for her return to Earth was precipitated not by love but by its loss, in a prolonged episode so painful that in recent interviews she's broken into tears mid-session.

Björk has described Vulnicura as an account of pain that simply had to be given expression — undoubtedly, not unlike what most any artist would say about a work of art borne of grief. Unlike most artists, however, Björk is utterly unselfconscious and un-ironic when suggesting that her account of pain might be "a document of the heartbreak of the species," as she said when talking to Rolling Stone. Such a statement would be pathetic Spinal-Tap-worthy grandiosity if spoken by a lesser artist. For Björk, however, it not only rings as completely genuine but even warranted. This is an artist who may have earned a position as musical spokesperson for humanity to the universe.

After an online leak that thrust Vulnicura into the world several weeks ahead of schedule, Björk decided to embrace the album's unwelcome premature birth and engage the rushed reality of the situation head-on. The album's unveiling might not have been how she would have chosen it, but the reception for Vulnicura was swiftly, emphatically positive: critics have called it Björk's best work in years, potentially since Vespertine (my personal favorite, so naturally, I'm predisposed to agree).

Fittingly, Vulnicura's sound palette is one of aching, wounded swells of violins and cellos and start-stop-start lyrical phrases that mimic a heart in confusion and desperation.

The album unfolds chronologically. The opener, "Stonemilker", finds Björk still early in the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, simultaneously bargaining with the love that is slipping away and in denial of its disintegration. She still wants to find her way to the "same coordinates" as her love, but to no avail. Along the album's journey, she will mourn the tearing apart of the interwoven-ness she'd thought was permanent, and regain her sense of self while realizing how he had feared "her limitless emotions" while she expresses how she has grown weary of his "apocalyptic obsessions."

While the music world is admittedly still caught in the initial throes of rapture with a new Björk masterwork, Vulnicura may nonetheless emerge from the hype as a new classic account of the female struggle of love and the experience of its betrayals. As such, it is a bracing, necessary account, as wholly original and vital as anything Björk has ever done but also shot through with a greater immediacy than perhaps anything else she has produced.