On the cover art for her new album, Björk lays open the painful whirlpool of emotion that engulfs Vulnicura, by literally wearing her wounded and festering heart on the (album) sleeve. Forced to release the album two months ahead of schedule after an online leak, it has come about unexpectedly, like, I imagine, the breakup from artist Matthew Barney she details.
Drawing on the experimental electronic soundscapes of co-producers The Haxan Cloak and Arca, the 49 year old Icelandic songwriter and performer hasn’t compromised the typically Björkian vein of avant-garde musical experimentation to release a dreary series of emotion-laden breakup songs. The Haxan Cloak’s influence can be felt in the underlying bass thuds, whilst Arca stamps his identity on the album with his industrially tinged, glitchy shrapnel-like beats, felt on tracks like ‘Family’, on which Björk’s vocals are drawn out over deconstructed dance beats like a heart being wrenched.
In the album’s opening track, ‘Stonemilker’, which might also be the most melodically straightforward and accessible song of the album, her vocals soar over avant-garde string arrangements and the boom and crack of fragmented, electronic beats.
The coalescence of the personal with the universal is expressed in the raw ‘History of Touches’, with the lyrics, “Every single fuck/We had together/Is in a wondrous time lapse”, reflecting Björk fine tuning her soul to the universal wavelength, as she does over the shifting strings of ‘Atom Dance’. But like the fleshy slit on her chest as depicted on the album cover, there are moments where the music takes on a grotesque physicality, notably in ‘Mouth Mantra’ which unleashes the sudden gushing of the “thousands of sounds”. It feels like a reflection of Björk’s pent-up emotion and the experience of finding your voice again after a messy breakup as alluded to by, “My throat was stuffed/My mouth was sewn up/Banned from making noise”.
Although she sings, “Maybe he will come out of this loving me/Maybe he won’t/Somehow, I’m not too bothered” on ‘Lion Song’, the stretched-out agony of ten minute track ‘Black Lake’ suggests otherwise. Closing on the twitchy and clanging landscape of ‘Quicksand’, she seems to finally reject total recovery, singing, “When we’re whole, we’re broken”. It’s an intensely cathartic and emotionally draining album – a reverie of groaning strings, mutated beats and jarringly pitched echoes. But through the open wound, Björk’s unique sonic palette shines through, undefeated.