By Trevor Morrison
The break up album has been made time and time again, basically since famous composers were professionally making music. Breakups are inevitable most of the time and can wreak havoc on the lives of both parties involved. Artists find creativity in this pain since it is a state that they do not normally traverse in their every day lives, thus yielding results that extend the natural bounds of their ability. This is the case here, with Björk’s latest album, Vulnicura. Björk has always been a stellar songwriter, looping tales of cosmic entities and describing extraordinary, everyday objects with endless wonder, but never has she cut so deep on a personal level in her music. This record is all about her long, painful split with her longtime boyfriend and father of her child, going into detail to describe when each of the songs take place in the stage of their breakup in the liner notes.
The lyrics themselves are simple enough; she makes her pain well known from the start. The main chorus of the first song, “Stonemilker,” has her demanding emotional respect from her partner, which I’m guessing does not go well judging from the tone of the rest of the album. On the second track “Lionsong” she seems to be channeling the denial stage of grief, in a way, wondering: “maybe he will come out of this, maybe he won’t…” but finishes the line by saying “Somehow I’m not too bothered, either way,” realizing that it’s probably all pointless and that their miraculous triangle, as described by Björk, has started to dissipate. The third track, “History of Touches” is the last song in the opening that has the last gasp of hope before the breakup. Sure, the song is all about having flashbacks of all the encounters that she and her partner had throughout their long relationship which causes her physical pain, but at least the song contains some strains of positivity, which for this album, is a rarity.
The next two songs, “Black Lake” and “Family” are definitely the most emotionally intense on the entire album. “Black Lake” is the longest song in Björk’s discography, clocking in at over 10 minutes and features gut wrenching strings that seem like a centerpiece on this fairly minimal track. She feels like she’s drowning in poison flowing from her gaping heart after the breakup; choked by introspection, longing and regret. In an interview with Pitchfork, Björk said that it is hard for her to listen to that one, for good reason. The second part of this downtrodden duo is “Family,” my favorite track of the album. It features additional production work by The Haxan Cloak, a dark electronic producer from the UK. This track is also emotionally intense, but has Björk looking outward at the pain she feels at the loss of her family. This song is truly a swarm of song, as stated in the lyrics of the song. The Haxan Cloak’s signature, bludgeoning stabs of noise pummel the listener, creating digital ripples through the track, all while screaming strings orchestrate the chaos that Björk’s familial structure goes through. The latter half of the track features an almost blissful, synthetic choir, making for a morally uncomfortable juxtaposition by the end. How are you supposed to feel at the end of a track that starts so tragically and ends so magnificently?
Instrumentally, this album is probably the most simple of all Björk albums, in my memory. There’s a 15-piece string section that accompanies Björk’s vivacious vocals, along with electronic based production that range from euphoric washes to glitchy nerve-wrackers, letting the tracks expand and contract with the emotional impacts that the vocals are leaving.
Speaking on the production, like all other Björk albums, it was done by Björk herself, with some help from outside artists. This time the main outside producer was hotshot electronic weirdo Arca, AKA Alejandro Ghersi, who has seen endless acclaim for his production work with FKA Twigs on EP2 and LP1, along with Kanye West’s Yeezus. His style has yet to be fully replicated, giving himself one of the most original and recognizable voices in electronic music today. His voice is subdued here to a degree, but little glints of his signature styles shine through at times, especially on tracks “History Of Touches” and “Mouth Mantra.” It is a Björk album, after all; it should be showcase her and not the brash strangeness of Arca’s demented beats. I’m glad that Arca was included on this project, though. If there’s one producer out there that deserves to work with all his idols and show them his endless creativity, it’s Arca. Especially on this deep and personal of an album. Björk really let him into her life, something that we should be grateful for.
All in all, Vulnicura is an emotional atom bomb. This record is not one that you can casually do chores to or put on with your friends, unless your friends are a bunch of sadsacks. It’s a brutally honest journey through the heartbreak of one of the brightest minds of experimental pop music alive right now. She demonstrates it so clearly that as listeners, we too are stricken with heartaches of our own. In my mind, musical immersion is one of the most important assets an artist can employ in their music and the fact that she is still able to transport us into her mind state even in this fragile time is extraordinary. If you are new to Björk, I’m not going to recommend starting with this record, but keep it in mind after you’ve digested her song structure and fall in love with everything she puts out. Trust me, it will happen. Then you will be ready for the wreckage. It’s so worth it.
Trevor Morrison is the Music Director at WHUS and goes by DJ Expensive Haircut on the airwaves. You can catch his show “An Empty Bliss” on Monday nights, 10pm-12am.