Björk, Vulnicura, review: ‘raw exhileration’

22 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Bjork discusses the breakdown of relationship with artist Matthew Barney which inspired ‘Vulnicura’.

Alongside her standard deranged-Teletubbie headgear, Bjork sports a black jumpsuit sliced open at the heart: a metaphor for the pain vacuum-packed into what she has straightforwardly admitted is a breakup record chronicling the dissolution in 2013 of her long term relationship with artist Matthew Barney (with whom she has a daughter).What the Icelandic art star Bjork has accomplished at the intersection of pop and the avant-garde cannot be summed up in one detail, but one thing to focus on is the way she sings the word “emotional.” Climbing it like one of the cliffs she often evokes in her pastoral lyrics, she lets it open up like a vista on its central, circulatory “o.” The word becomes a Valkyrie’s cry, a statement of purpose both sacred and humanly thrilling.has said that her new album ‘Vulnicura’ was written as a reaction to her previous album ‘Biophilia’, which was more of an experimental project, because she “gets bored easily”. Speaking to Pitchfork, the artist said that the 2013 split was “the most painful thing” she had ever experienced. “When I did this album it all just collapsed.

But while the woman may have struggled with her emotions, the singer has a unique and unfettered musical and lyrical vocabulary with which to express them. In an interview with French magazine Les Inrocks, the singer called ‘Biophlilia’ a “very strange album” and said that since its release, the interactive education program contained within the album has even been experimented with in Scandinavian schools. “Even MoMA in New York has integrated the app into its permanent collection. Characteristically, the music, written with Venezuelan producer Arca, is diffuse, often impenetrable while, as lyricist, Bjork maintains her longstanding tradition of singing in a language only faintly related to English.

And across nine, soul-scourging tracks she confidently deploys a blend of elegant, avant-garde string arrangements, electronic beats, ecclesiastical harmonies and deeply distorted vocals to explore the strange contraflows of love, sorrow, strength, fury, nostalgia, confusion, defiance, despair, hope, grief, pity and spite that she feels at being “shut out” by the father of her twelve-year-old daughter. I didn’t think that would happen,” she said, before adding: “I get bored easily, so my albums are often made in opposition to the one that came before. The only way I could deal with that was to start writing for strings; I decided to become a violin nerd and arrange everything for 15 strings and take a step further than what I’ve done before.” Crying during the emotional interview, she went on to say that the subject of the break-up was difficult to open up about, but that the album’s lyrics tell the full story. “It’s really hard for me to talk about it,” she said. “It really is in the lyrics. Strings and beats swirl together, supporting her, the language of conventional romance combining with strangely intimate electronics that remind the listener of medical monitoring machines — or of heartbeats, even stomach rumbles, themselves. Rush released digitally two months ahead of schedule after being leaked online, if you break down the title into its components – vulnerability and cure – it is easy to imagine the album moving from one position to the other just as the music shifts stylistically.

As to the particulars: well, Vulnicura will require a good deal of parsing on the part of anyone hoping for an insight into the bread-and-butter of her romantic travails. Marked in the liner notes as the preface to the love-lost story Vulnicura tells, “Stonemilker” establishes the balance Bjork characteristically seeks: between sentiment and science, an immersion in feeling and its familiar social markers and an analytical take on just those things. However, the lyrics don’t follow the path of a linear recovery, but rather suggest that any cure comes through the very act of exposing vulnerability.

The cover features Björk dressed in a shiny black catsuit with a fleshy, pink slash down the centre of her chest making her look literally open hearted. Reading like a manifesto for what is to follow, opener Stonemilker is a narcotically woozy ballad, Bjork’s sad-elf coo swirling around crepuscular strings. Perhaps the most accessibly melodic song on the album, opener Stonemilker (written nine months before the break-up) finds a woman asking, reasonably, for “emotional respect”. The muted ambiance is doubled down on through Lionsong and History of Touches; only with the rumbling beats that erupt halfway through Black Lake does Vulnicura threaten to shake off its torpor (Bjork, naturally, still sounds halfway between shriek and sob).

This album is an inquiry into melodrama, and if its songs demand that the listener get uncomfortably close to the viscera of that romantic experience, they do so the better to expose how humans move through pain and finally justify leaving it behind. Smelling “declarations of solitude” she piles up tense vocals : “Make the joy peak/Humour peak/Frustration peak/Anything peak/For clarity!” Two months after the break-up and the sound is submerged, with crunchy beats like cracks forming at the base of massive icebergs. “Family was always our sacred mutual mission/which you abandoned” she howls into the gale of strings and electronic percussion, which suddenly drop away from her. We associate it with bodice-ripper novels and Technicolor movies in which beauties wear their anguish openly, without shame; overwrought stories, maybe, but ones that have always filled in the gaps between relentlessly macho tales of crime, politics and war.

In recent years, women artists and some empathetic men have reclaimed melodrama in ways that make it both more introspective and more clearly critical of the gender divisions that required its existence in the first place. She trudges on through the funereal dirge of Family, the whirlwind of Notget, the philosophical Atom Dance joined by Antony Hegarty’s molten vocals and ends on the frantic beats of Quicksand in which she warns: “Every time you give up/you take away our future/and my continuity and my daughter’s/and her daughter’s …” After the wild beach party of 2007’s Volta and the shiny wonders of 2011’s Biophilia, Vulnicura is a windswept trek of a record. The experience isn’t always pleasant – this is a collection on first name terms with claustrophobia – but you will at least come out the other side understanding you have been on a trip. The film collaborations of Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore, Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary performance in I Am Love; Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story and Jenny Offill’s more recent Dept. of Speculation: these are the works that form a frame around Vulnicura, reminding us that this is not just a raw reflection of Bjork’s breakup with her fellow fabulist Matthew Barney, but an intellectually ambitious intervention into melodrama itself.

Her co-producer Arca proves an ideal partner; having previously shown his sensitivity toward highly idiosyncratic vocalists working with Kanye West and FKA Twigs, he merges his own slyly organic, determinedly fluid sound with the one she’s perfected using guts and intellect, and it’s a beautifully easy collaboration. It surveys and carefully accesses the range of emotions abandonment inspires — “define her abyss, show it respect” she sings on the slippery “Quicksand” — but boldly moves on, outlining a plan for healing.

The album’s mostly gentle pace and sonic spaciousness — unlike her previous work, Biophilia, this one never feels busy — demand attentiveness. “Black Lake,” Vulnicura’s centerpiece, unfolds like an aria — the designated space within classical music where a woman can reveal how men have betrayed her, both intimately and within society. Because this is Bjork, however, instead of employing coloratura cries, she shares her tragedy in calm but mounting phrases that reflect both folk balladry and torch songs. In spare couplets gradually pushed forward by Arca’s biological beats, she reveals first her own pain, then the way her lover created it through betrayal, which Bjork defines as a hollowing of the heart.

But she also knows part of herself has burned away; the last image in this blend of the natural and the mechanical is of her becoming “a glowing, shining rocket,” returning to the atmosphere of herself. “I burn off layer by layer,” she confesses as the strings cool the mood, pooling mourning around her. Bjork has said that she hopes these songs provide insight into how heartbreak affects the body: “the wound and the healing of the wound.” Allaying any doubts about this injury’s gender, the album cover depicts Bjork as a futuristic, flower-like creature with an open chest that resembles a detail from a Judy Chicago plate. For Bjork (who has an adult son and a young daughter) heart and the womb are inseparable, and one thing that makes Vulnicura distinctive is her attention to how broken romance reverberates beyond the couple. The quiet but ferocious “Family,” co-produced by electronica’s 27-year-old horror master The Haxan Cloak, begins with a summoning tympani-style beat as Bjork, vengeful as a mother’s ghost, cries out about “the death of my family.” By song’s end, she has turned toward her daughter, determined to build a bridge beyond the split earth. Her own overdubbed voice forms that bridge, intertwining with the violins she often employs as harmonic partners. “There is a swarm of sound around our heads,” she sings: it’s sound that she herself generates, as women in melodrama often do, speaking truths that both expose and begin to reassemble what has been broken.

In “Atom Dance,” the dizzying duet with frequent collaborator Antony Hegarty that signals the damaged lover’s return to wholeness through compassion, she declares, “I am finetuning my soul to the universal wavelength” — this is the hippie side of Bjork that makes it hard for some cynics to take her seriously. But the weblike arrangement that Arca and Bjork create, which the singers make richer by merging their voices in self-dissolving harmony, proves her point. In the end, Vulnicura plays out its tragedy and pushes beyond its boundaries. “Quicksand” spins beyond the album’s frame on a drum and bass beat and the staccato push of a wordless female voice. “Our mother’s philosophy, it feels like quicksand,” Bjork snappily intones.

She reflects upon the isolation of the abandoned woman and opts for something different for herself and her daughter: she turns the solitary “she is broken” of femininity’s history into a loving “we,” an invocation of the animist universalism she’s espoused in songs ranging from “Isobel” to “Pagan Poetry” to the entire Biophilia project. “When we’re broken we are whole,” she sings, at home in the swirl.

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