For many years Björk as an individual, rather than as an artist, has been an unknowable quantity.Her private life was closely guarded and her more recent albums avoided discussion of personal experiences; many tracks ditching any pretence of a first person perspective. Instead she concerned herself with loftier ideas - the blurring of science, nature and technology on Biophilia, and concepts of energy, place and freedom on Volta. Even when she did sing from a more personal perspective the stories and themes were largely universal - we as an audience listened, yet rarely did we go digging for secrets and deep insight into the life of the artist.
This all changes with Vulnicura which, for the first time in Björk's career, concerns itself solely with the artist's personal life. It is a single narrative told over nine tracks which charts the breakdown of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney, the aftermath and her attempts to heal. In the album's liner notes several tracks are marked by where they appear within the relationship's chronology - opening track 'Stonemilker' is nine months before, whilst 'Black Lake' is two months after. Interestingly none of the tracks details the actual breakup itself. In some respects this reflects real life. The actual point of separation is a singular moment - what we tend to obsess over are the circumstances leading up to the breakup and the way we navigate life and our emotions when someone we've devoted ourselves to is suddenly gone.
'Stonemilker' opens with mournful strings underscoring Björk's voice, they are soft, merely hinting at the turmoil that is to unfold over the course of the record. Slow electronic beats echo beneath all of this, their percussive sound growing more varied as the strings surge and swell. Much of Vulnicura follows this template, marrying the beautiful, somewhat saddening sound of a string quartet to colder, less human beats. This is an approach Björk has taken before. Homogenic was built around the juxtaposition of organic and inorganic sounds and it's hard not to hear echoes of track like 'Joga' within 'Stonemilker', particularly Björk's call for "emotional respect" which is delivered in a similar fashion to 'Joga's "emotional landscapes".
What sets it (and the rest of the album) apart from Björk's previous work is the sparseness of the arrangements. The tracks on Homogenic were layered up with a multitude of sounds; soft, stirring strings against heavy, bombastic beats or subtle electronic pulsing against rich, textured ambient backdrops. On Vulnicura the sound initially developed on Homogenic is stripped right back - it leaves us with songs that feel raw and ensures we focus more on Björk's vocal performance. That's not to say that we're not treated to beautiful, engaging arrangements, instead the opposite. The songs on Vulnicura feel stronger simply because they say more with less.
At one point on 'Lionsong' the quartet plays so quietly that it's as though Björk is singing a cappella. Later the strings rise and fall as the electronic percussion grows louder, more frantic, desperate to be heard. There's a sense throughout these earlier tracks that the instruments know more than we do. Tracks like 'Lionsong' and 'History of Touches' turn into a complex battle between vocalised assumptions and unconscious fears that we're having difficulty acknowledging.
This creates an interesting tension between what is said and what is to come, lending the record a kind of dramatic irony. This device (coupled with the occasional use of present tense) affords us some distance, reminding us that we are an audience, the anguish depicted is that of the artist alone - no matter how much we may relate. Perhaps this need for distance is what compelled Björk to utilise a similar vocal effect to the one found in 'Dark Matter' on Biophilia. There Björk sang in a gibberish compositional language, with pitch altered to reflect the gravitational effect dark matter exerts; on 'Lionsong' it alters Björk's voice just enough to make her unrecognisable. She definitely said those words, but no longer recognises that person. A similar technique is used again in 'Family' as echoes of Björk's pleas rebound - anguish encircling us.
Throughout the first three tracks Björk, through music and lyrics, has been coming to terms with a relationship dissolving around her. On 'Stonemilker' she is aware that things are changing, whilst in 'Lionsong' she directly asks if "he will come out of this loving me." Her attempts at denial give way to reluctant acceptance ("somehow I'm not too bothered / I'd just like to know"). 'History of Touches' is where desperation sets in and the distance between her and her lover becomes clear. It opens with a sharp, choral synthesiser, modulated slightly so that it crackles in and out of the mix as though crumbling apart. The strings are noticeable by their absence and as Björk sings of "every single fuck we had together / is in a wondrous time lapse," we are shown how cold and impersonal the relationship has become. Compare, for example, 'Cocoon' from Vespertine where Björk, over an electronic beat, sings about sex with her lover. The backing is cold, yet the intimate detail provided in Björk's lyrics provide a juxtaposing warmth; she also takes time to describe small details, whilst on 'History of Touches' whole acts are merely moments to be archived. A whole song was given over to the act of making love (and it wasn't the only one) but here it's reduced to a single, vulgar word - a "fuck".
'Black Lake' is Vulnicura's centrepiece, documenting a journey through depression and anger over the course of ten minutes. The string quartet plays slowly, a funeral tone as Björk sings of vulnerability and suffering. As the song progresses distant, muted percussion is introduced. Then something strange happens - the music subsides for a brief second, a small moment of calm amidst the devastation that is clearly growing. When the music returns the electronic percussion is clearer, closer, building in intensity.
As the musical intensity grows, so does the imagery Björk uses. She sings of her "soul torn apart", how she is "bored of your apocalyptic obsessions" and lyrically presents an image of herself as she appears on the cover; in mourning, with a great wound replacing her heart. As the electronic percussion begins to take over and the strings strain she imagines violence and destruction. Things reach a thrilling crescendo as the beats become more ferocious and for the first time on the record Björk is in sync with the music, they are both working together to communicate the same message.
'Black Lake's imagery is visceral and it makes the track a rather difficult listen. Whilst all of Vulnicura deals with the dissolution of a relationship, it is here where the scarring is most visible. It is, quite simply great art. Novelist James Baldwin once said, "all art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up." Vulnicura is the result of Björk's anguish. An attempt to document, explain and understand recent personal turmoil in the hope of finding catharsis.
Despite the solemnity of the strings, 'Black Lake' ends on a moment of optimism as Björk compares herself to a rocket returning home, shedding the baggage of her relationship. There's a conviction to her performance that sets her ahead of the instrumentation for the first time on the record and so the song ends with her taking charge of her destiny.
From this point the record starts to layer in more sounds. 'Family' which (thanks to its violent stabs of violin and cello) sometimes sounds like a track from Venetian Snares' Rossz Csillag Allat Született or even Arca's 'Family Violence', begins to layer in choral vocals and huge ambient washes. It provides a reverent coda to a song that otherwise wraps itself in a rather nihilistic aesthetic. 'Notget' meanwhile sees a growing antagonism, characterised by unconventional electronic sounds that spike and clang and glitch. In both tracks Björk's concerns turn to that of survival, with 'Family' focused on the singer's concerns for her children and the nature of family, whilst 'Notget' is the survival of the self.
Both tracks also feature Arca as a co-composer and probably veer closest to what many expected when they heard the Venezuelan producer was to be working on the record. The simple fact is that this is Björk's record, it's her pain and her vision. There may very well be contributions from the likes of Antony Hegarty (vocals on 'Atom Dance'), Arca (co-production) and The Haxan Cloak (mixing) but it should be clear that in order to create a record this consistent, this powerful in its narrative, an extraordinary artist has to be leading the way. Björk has never compromised her sound to anyone, and Vulnicura is a stark reminder of that.
'Atom Dance' opens with Björk singing a cappella, before introducing a melody of light, plucked strings and a skipping snare beat. Compared to what's gone before it's a rather beautiful, reinvigorating instrumental, which helps to provide a sense of optimism to the lyrics. "Learning by love," Björk sings, "to open it up / let this ugly wound breathe" - she is confronting her own pain, and using it as a means to heal. In some respects 'Atom Dance', with its plea to "enter the pain and dance with me," is the manifesto of Vulnicura. It's as though the song is asking us to find solace in the universal emotions of life - "no one is a lover alone / most hearts fear their own home." The introduction of Antony Hegarty, echoing Björk's vocals back at her seems to reinforce this, they aren't lovers finding one another, but lost souls with a commonality. If 'Black Lake' is the emotional nadir of the record, then this is its optimistic zenith.
As if to counter this 'Mouth Mantra' presents a more confrontational Björk. Skittery, chaotic beats collide with deep, oppressive strings. "Remove this hindrance," Björk sings, "my throat feels stuck" as she appears to confront the difficulties of purging the anguish through song. 'Mouth Mantra' is the record's most violent moment, it is the artist struggling with her own artistic endeavours, battling the demons preventing her from truly freeing herself of pain. The beats reflect this, growing ever louder, consuming the strings and bellowing high pitched shrieks.
Vulnicura ends with 'Quicksand' a largely electronic track of thrilling quick-tempo percussion, sampled vocals and swirling strings that ascend into ambient beauty. Björk's lyrics focus on a similar ascension, lifting her up into the clouds, into the light, into the future. After swirling ever higher the song ends abruptly - though not before reiterating the universal nature of heartbreak. "We are the siblings of the sun ... every time you give up / you take away our future / and my continuity and my daughter's / and her daughters." The final line is repeated several times fading off into the distance. Love, heartbreak, anguish, recovery, love - a cycle many of us know. Whilst Vulnicura is a deeply personal record, its honesty, its savage beauty, its pure anguish offers a sense of cathartic relief for anyone who hears it. Great art takes pain and turns it into something that can help us heal. Vulnicura does exactly that.