By Dilan Gunawardana
25th January, 2015
At the emotional nadir of Vulincura, a question emerges from a pounding, nightmarish soundscape:
'Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?'
It’s a vast understatement to say that legendary Icelandic artist, Björk, has affixed her heart firmly to her sleeve. From her early days as a brash punk pixie in the Sugarcubes, to her nebulous Earth Mother persona, she has charmed and captivated a wide variety of music lovess worldwide with her unflinching honesty and lack of pretense.
For those who aren't familiar with her music, Björk is the personification of a raw nerve, a prodigious vocal talent born without a brain-to-mouth filter. That is her genius. Candid musings simply roll off her tongue and tumble out into the world, adorned with tendrils, frills and gems, and accompanied by the strains of heart-tugging baroque violin, or blasts of machine gun synth-pop. Since going solo in the early 90s, each album she has produced has been a distinct saga of passion, wonder, hope, renewal, loss and love, sometimes delicate and subdued in its themes like Vespertine (2001) or bold and pulsating like Volta (2007).
Her latest offering, Vulnicura is unashamedly a breakup album; in fact some track listings on the booklet are subtitled '3 months before', '2 months after' etc., and serve as a chronicle to the slow disintegration of her marriage to the American artist, Matthew Barney.
I had mixed emotions when Vulnicura was released two months prior to its intended release date, following an online leak. On the one hand, I was frothing with anticipation, but on the other hand, I wanted to respect the artist’s wishes.
In an interview with Pitchfork, she frequently chokes up when reminded of her family’s dissolution. This leads me to believe that there was a good reason why she had chosen the original release date. Perhaps more time would have allowed her to speak about the melancholia of the album, and the Matthew Barney chapter of her life more introspectively without any residual feelings of grief. Who knows?
I deliberately avoided reading anything about Vulnicura prior to listening to it, in order to absorb it cleanly without the taint of expectation or prejudice.
Firstly, I was thrilled by the return of trip-hop beats and baroque strings, so reminiscent of Homogenic (1997). These elements richly weave between lines: “show me emotional respect/I have emotional needs/I wish to synchronize our feelings” on the stunning opening track, 'Stonemilker', and you know what? No one vocalises the word “emotional” better than her (see 'Jòga' from Homogenic).
On the second track, 'Lionsong', a rift between two lovers forms. Her voice is replicated and superimposed at certain points throughout, a technique used in Biophilia (2011) to create a sort of 'ethereal duet' effect. However, it’s utilised more effectively in 'Lionsong', as there is an apparent conflict between the optimist and the pessimist here: 'Maybe he will come out of this, loving me/ Maybe he won’t', she wails, whilst straining to elicit an emotional response from her distant spouse.
As the album unfolds, you begin to think, 'Christ, this a bit dark …' And sure enough, Vulnicura reveals itself to be an account of her messy separation (or a 'highly emotional conscious uncoupling', if you will). The impending doom, the apocalyptic event, the frightening aftermath, the fallout, the survival tactics, and the recovery are all covered here.
History of Touches
Track three, 'History of Touches' is a last-ditch attempt at emotional and physical intimacy in the middle of the night. The futility of this effort is preceded by the lines: 'I wake you up/ in night feeling/ this is our last time together'. It’s the beginning of the end. The synthesizer alternates between light and heavy notes, but they are discordant, like the couple in question.
We’ve all been there, eh?
iBlack Lake' takes place two months after the calamity. To quote Joy Division’s 'Love Will Tear Us Apart': 'resentment rides high and emotions take hold'. We also learn that she may have been the instigator in this breakup: 'I did it for love, honoured my feelings/ you betrayed your own heart/ corrupted that organ.'
By the time I got to Family, and it’s morbid opening line: 'Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?' I was ready to leap in front of an oncoming bus in despair. Initially, it’s a howling and frankly depressing dirge, but it blooms into waves of plaintive synth ‘n’ strings towards the end, so patience is recommended here.
Before we proceed onto the second half of the album, we need to take a breath and address some of Vulnicura’s lyrics. Björk herself concedes that they are 'so teenage, so simple'. On paper, lines such as 'your heart is hollow, I’m drowned in sorrows', can sound vacuous in the mouth of a lesser being, but there are a number of reasons why Björk can get away with it, while [insert female pop star here] can’t.
Her greatest asset isn’t so much the eloquence of her lyrics; it’s mostly her delivery. She is a storyteller at heart, pausing, stuttering, taking deep breaths, rolling her r’s, and undulating and stretching out words like pizza dough. As any half decent storyteller knows, the trick is to make the audience slightly uncomfortable and make them beg for you to finish a sentence or fill silence with something. It keeps them focused and on edge, while simultaneously giving them space to think about the material.
Even to a musical ignoramus like me, it is apparent that she is also gifted in the art of sound production. A decent set of headphones reveal just how deep the musical layers go, and how perfectly timed certain swells and flourishes are. On this occasion, she works alongside Brooklyn-based producer, Arca (a.k.a Alejandro Ghersi) and The Haxan Cloak who contribute a brooding, bouncing, electronic sci-fi sensibility, but temper it subtly with luscious strings and Björk’s potent voice … I suppose it’s the only perfect marriage contained within this album.
At a certain point (eleven months later) in the epic of Vulnicura, our heroine decides to acknowledge her emotional state with a Buddhist sentiment: 'don’t remove my pain/ it is my chance to heal'. 'Notget' is a frantic, prickly acceptance of what needs to be done, chief of which is to raise their daughter, Isadora. It all ends with the line: 'love will keep us safe from death', the final word delivered in a cynical, hellish drawl.
Atom Dance marks the first signs of renewal with a tentative, plucking violin waltz. As her wound begins to knit together at the subatomic level (the atom dance in question), Antony Hegarty (from Antony and the Johnsons) suddenly materialises like ghost from the gloom, intermittently at first, and then stops the song dead in its tracks with a distorted version of his angelic voice. At the five-minute mark, it all synchronises into a beautiful, heart-tugging symphony of beats, strings, Antony and Björk, and signals the coming of Spring following a harsh Winter.
'Mouth Mantra' is about finding oneself again, in this case, through song. She’s moving onwards and upwards: 'need to break up/vicious habits/do something/ I haven’t done before'.
Finally we come to the story’s conclusion, 'Quicksand'. On the surface there’s a boisterous breakbeat and a sense of joy, but what lies beneath is an endless cycle of heartbreak and renewal, delivered with anxious energy. She hasn’t completely healed, but now she can at least edge past the pain.
The following is a visual representation to sum up Vulnicura’s Arc of Hope, 10 being Björk’s most hopeful state and 1 being her least.
Yes, I have a lot of time on my hands.
Her last album, Biophilia, was disappointing. The production and art style that accompanied it was lavish and spectacular, but the songs themselves (apart from 'Crystalline' and 'Mutual Core'), felt unfocused and disconnected from our heroine’s intriguing emotional core.
Vulnicura is a darkly beautiful tale of heartbreak and disintegration. Like any period of therapy and reflection, it allows for a detour into wallowing anguish, but ultimately rewards the listener for their patience with lush rhythms and sincerity. It is an accomplished work.
Artists as open as Björk have lives will probably never need to write an autobiography. Their lives are chronicled immaculately through their works. At the end of her colourful life, she will have compiled an oeuvre equal to the mythic Icelandic Sagas. I hope her next album will be as emotionally rich as Vulnicura, but crafted from feelings of love and joy, rather than pain. Either way, I’m sure it will be a true testament to the fragility and resilience of the human spirit.
Image source: Wikipedia
Image source: Wikipedia
Matthew Barney (above) attends his daughter’s parent-teacher interview.
Source : Wikipedia
Closing the wound
Source: One Little Indian Records