Few artists in recent years have mastered the tired concept that is the break-up album. However, pharm given the multitude of ideas and styles that Bjork has pulled off, whatever move she makes is bound to enthral listeners in some way. Arriving somewhat earlier then expected, her ninth album, Vulnicura, delves deep into her emotions before and after the breakdown of her marriage, creating her most personal and penetrating record to date. The emerging producer Arca (FKA Twigs and Kanye West) and dark ambient guru The Haxan Cloak play a strong hand in the panoply of acerbic beats.
For the course of Vulnicura, Bjork is on a search for meaning. The opener ‘Stonemilker’ signals the beginning of the end of the relationship as she quietly states over the breezy strings that ‘moments of clarity are so rare’. Her mind is cluttered with a mixture of fear and confusion. ‘Notget’ represents Bjork holding on to the final shreds of hope before accepting that her marriage is doomed, and all she is left to do is savoir her final moments with her partner and embrace her memories, which she does on the phenomenal ‘History of Touches’ with Arca’s airy brushes of synth in the backdrop adding a strong sense of nostalgia to the track.
After the break-up, Bjork’s feelings spiral out of control and the music follows along, resulting in some of her most mind-numbing and multifaceted work to date. The soul-crushing ‘Black Lake’ begins with slow, murky strings and long pauses before transforming into an energetic, stomping drum beat. It is at this point that the agony kicks in – ‘my soul torn apart, my spirit torn apart’, she cries in a quivering vocal style, as if caught in a blizzard. The centerpiece of Vulnicura however is ‘Family’ which focuses on the grave implications that Bjork’s divorce will have on her children. Gloom is epidemic as she looks for ways to save their livelihoods. The Haxan Cloak makes his presence felt here with ice-cutting thuds before the song drifts off into a cloud of ambience.
In its second half, Bjork’s feelings become more and more elliptical. There are outbursts of anguish but at the same she finds solace in the fact that she is not alone. This latter sentiment is heard in the eight-minute ‘Atom Dance’ which begins innocently with gentle pizzicato as the Icelandic songstress is ‘fine-tuning her soul to the universal wavelength’ and ‘no one is a lover alone’. Antony Hegarty makes a cameo with manipulated vocals that blend seamlessly into the track. The bouncy, playful instrumentation in ‘Quicksand’ masks the disturbing personal outlook evident in the lyrics, where she plainly states ‘when I’m broken I am whole and when I’m whole I’m broken’.
In the wake of two middling LPs, Vulnicura is a welcome return to form for Bjork. The wavering introspection along with the bleak and at times jarring accompaniment, make this a break-up album that is a different level of intensity. In hardly any other albums that deal with this theme, are the shockwaves of the separation so chaotic and equivocal, and this effect offers a sense of honesty to the record. Perhaps its fitting it came out just in time for Valentines Day.
By Adam Bielenberg