The deep scar down the centre of Björk’s chest on the cover says plenty about the highly personal, painful content of Vulnicura. It is the hole through which her heart was torn out, through which all the pain and anguish is now passing, and also an entry point for us all to go the other way. Björk describes this as her ‘complete heartbreak album’, and ‘complete’ is the right word. The wound is still open, a story told through the graphic storytelling of her lyrics.
Yes, Björk has had her heart broken, ripped apart, along with her vision of family. Luckily, great art comes from pain and while the sound of her sorrow borders on overwhelming, this is one of her most magnetic records in many years. She will never again be as accessible as she was at the peak of her commercial powers in the 1990s, but she now has the artistic freedom to do whatever she wants. Right now, she wants to pour out some pain. Her need to make it, share it, and tour it will reveal more about Björk than perhaps anyone has ever known.
The songs are long, with a more classical influence than we’ve heard from her before. Björk has explored the use of strings extensively in order to encapsulate the agony and drama of heartbreak, and succeeds. The resulting record sounds like a sister LP to 2001’s Vespertine, but it is darker. Vulcinura grows with every listen. The subject is simple, but the mechanics of heartbreak and the way she sonically explores it here is anything but. It connects greatly, and that is its success where some of her more recent records didn’t quite grab the audience.
After the intensity of opener ‘Stonemilker’ the next five tracks take us on a chronological journey through her decade-plus long relationship, which brought Björk her second child, and its aftermath. ‘History of Touches’ pinpoints the moment two months before the split, as the distance between the couple grows and an ending becomes inevitable, while ‘Black Lake’ picks up the story a few months later, when utter futility has taken over. Emptiness never sounded so bold, clear, and devoid of hope. It feels like we shouldn’t be listening, it feels like it has the honesty and clarity of rejection to take us down with her. It’s actually hard to believe.
Sonically, it’s a challenging record, one that you probably won’t want to hear too much as the sorrow is contagious, but it is impossible to deny that something very beautiful has come from seemingly endless pain. The record feels like a natural disaster, Björk ever in touch with nature, as a tornado is spotted in the distance heading straight for the town, the heart, the eternal homeland. The emotions surround the oncoming downfall of defences and the aftermath of total devastation that it leaves behind. It’s impossible to shy away from the impact, all that is left is to acknowledge and communicate the ongoing effect it has made. Arca and The Hexan Cloak collaborate with Björk here and have a clear grasp on what she is trying to say, as the beats and dynamics embrace the pain.
But if the album begins with the crumbling of the relationship and then moves on to the period after the rupture, the final three tracks represent a release and a move into another stage – there is loss, confusion, but also the hope of something new. The first six tracks occupy more than 40 minutes and would suffice as an album on their own, but Björk has more to say.
Vulnicura represents another new direction, a deep and dark sentiment from Björk. It has parts of some of her finest past work and is still entirely new, fresh, and intriguing. Each album shifts from the last, as if in Björk’s world there is constant personal and artistic evolution, acknowledged in what she does. It isn’t just a world to step into, it sucks you in and surrounds you, it does what little other music does, it somehow reaches parts of you that most music is incapable of. It’s real music, with a necessity to use every second of our days to do something of meaning, to leave a part of your soul in everything you create, to never stop growing and moving and being honest with those around you.
Going back to the cover, she has opened up, by necessity, and she has given herself completely, like never before. Maybe we weren’t meant to get this close, inside even, but it only serves to add to the creator’s magic, it only makes her even more special. Time heals all wounds, but this is a document of a time that its composer surely is better for offloading and who would deny her that? In an age in which the concept of ‘family’ is ever changing, perhaps it’s only in our minds that we create such things in the first place. Or perhaps when everything else is changing that is the one stable foundation that all human beings need, whether they know it or not. To us, this woman may be one of the finest musical artists to ever live, but she is also just a woman, with a desire for some normality and love.
Vulnicura may not be easy to listen to, especially not to long time fans, because the pain Björk is feeling is so vast, and so all consuming here. How well she has encapsulated such dark feelings, with such lyrical precision and emotional accuracy is a feat that few will ever match on a record. It’s astonishing, and while it needs time to see past the darkness and truly get inside the gifts it has to offer and slowly reveal to us, that very same investment of time will reap incredible rewards. It’s not just one of the records of the year, somewhat hastily released in digital form in the first three weeks of the year with a physical release to come, but surely it will be a record to stand up alongside some of the other finest works of the decade. It’s going to take time to really see what it is, but it certainly seems to grow with every listen for now. At a point where many would begin to fade, her light seems to shine perhaps even more brightly than ever before.