Björk has logged nearly 30 years of increasing artistic cred and platform-omnivorous ambition, and she has the enviable ability to anticipate sonic and technological waves just before they crest. But her albums over the past decade have underwhelmed, despite their reach and sense of craft. Part of it’s how Björk, as she’s grown as an artist, has grown inward; at her best (parts of Medúlla and Biophilia), her albums come off like slivers of some grand unrealized possibility—undeniably dazzling, but intimidating for everyone who isn’t Björk. At her worst (parts of Volta), those slivers are contorted, Procrustes-style, into the easy templates she left behind somewhere around Debut.
But part of it’s the tendency to make Björk into other, false versions of herself: Björk the wayward pop figure, Björk the wearer of the outfits that became memes, Björk the metaphor-smitten New Ager, Björk as the quirky vessel for her male collaborators, rather than the person with complete creative and curatorial control over all aspects of her music. Even Björk the genius, who works in the abstract, disconnected from, as she once sang, “the exchange of human emotions.” But for all her classical ambitions and hyperextended metaphors, the best Björk tracks express startlingly direct emotional truths, blown up to their towering real-life scale.
Nowhere is this more clear than on her ninth album proper, Vulnicura. Co-produced by Arca (Kanye West’s Yeezus, FKA Twigs’ LP1, his own Xen) and the Haxan Cloak and drawing on Björk’s split with artist Matthew Barney, the album places itself among the most human, emotionally candid, even functional of art forms: the breakup album. Its position is deliberate; in conversation with Pitchfork, she called Vulnicura a “traditional singer/songwriter thing,” suggesting something plainspoken, modest, even folksy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vulnicura is none of these things, but it’s simultaneously her most mature feat of arranging and almost psychosomatically affecting. It’s also, as was widely reported, with us a few months early. While it’d be wrong to say it’s for the best that Vulnicura was leaked then rush-released—no one in Björk’s position would welcome that—the leak does her an inadvertent service: it makes Vulnicura the first Björk album in years to come into the world untethered by museum exhibitions, movie tie-ins, iPad apps, or promo cycles involving Timbaland. We receive it simply on its own iconoclastic terms.
Vulnicura is loosely arranged around the chronology of a relationship: the period before the breakup, the dazed moments after, the slow recovery. It’s a sense of time that’s both hyper-specific—in the liner notes, Björk places each song up until the two-thirds mark in an exact point on the timeline, from nine months before to 11 months after—and loose, with half-moments that span entire dramatic arcs. “History of Touches”, for example, is a near-forensic exhumation of the precise time of relationship death. The song begins and ends upon the narrator waking her soon-to-be-ex-lover, and Arca’s programming develops in slow motion as Björk’s vocal and lyric circle back upon the scale and warp the timeline: “The history of touches, every single archive compressed into a second.” There’s some “Cocoon” in there, in the post-coital setting and smitten sigh, but there’s also the unmistakable sense that everything Björk describes is expiring as she speaks it. It’s luxuriant and bleary and sad, something like sleepwalking infatuated through an autopsy. Skip to several months after in the record’s progression, album centerpiece “Black Lake”, a masterwork of balancing elements: Björk’s requiem strings leading to Arca’s tectonic-plate percussion and vocal patches, cuttingly crafted (in unmistakably Björk fashion) lines like “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions” giving way to lines far more unadorned and unanswerable: “Did I love you too much?”
What keeps these questions from sounding maudlin are those flashes of rueful wit (elsewhere, on “Family”: “Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?”) and Björk’s vocal delivery; she’s at least twice expressed her admiration, at the pure musical level, of fado singer Amália Rodrigues, and you can hear it in how she leans into syllables, indulging feelings then dissecting them. Rarely does Vulnicura sound anything but seamless; her palette blends in drum-and-bass loops, flatline effects, groaning cellos, pitch-warped echoes by Antony Hegarty. The more Björk has grown as an arranger, the less dated her albums sound; closer “Quicksand” initially scans like it’s approaching over-timely Rudimental territory, but it’s a little late in the album for that, and this is soon subsumed into a string reverie that’s unmistakably hers.
In Björk’s discography, Vulnicura most resembles Vespertine, another unyieldingly cerebral work about vulnerability and being turned by love to besotted viscera, and also an unmistakably female album. Vulnicura doubles down on these elements, from the choir arrangements to the yonic wound imagery of the cover, like Björk’s attempt at a grand unified photoshoot of female pain, to Vulnicura’s echoes from the first track (“Moments of clarity are so rare—I better document this”) of the long tradition of women artists thinking and rethinking their own life stories, in public, until they coalesce into art. Fittingly, when Björk dispenses with the breakup framework (and timestamps) two-thirds of the way through the album, Vulnicura becomes about more. “Mouth Mantra” is part glitchy nightmare of grotesque imagery (“my mouth was sewn up… I was not heard”) and part reassertion of her artistic identity: “this tunnel has enabled thousands of sounds.”
It isn’t just her. “I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them you’re not just imagining things,” she told Pitchfork, and on “Quicksand” Vulnicura shifts finally from personal documentation of one person’s rough year to words for those who’ve stayed for it all: “Every time you give up, you take away our future and my continuity—and my daughter’s, and her daughters, and her daughters,” Björk sings on the track, just before it cuts off mid-string cadenza. It’s possible to hear this as resignation, but it’s also possible to hear it as a note of hope, that there is a future after coming out of such an emotional wringer, if not quite one that’s reassuring. The ambiguity feels honest.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1L4M7rM