If the voice is a problem for you by now – now being this ninth studio album proper from Icelandic singer, sometime actress and certified cultural icon Björk – then, really, it’s best that you just step away.
‘Vulnicura’ is no reinvention, no dramatic shift to a sound more palatable for those who feel that Paolo Nutini made one of the best albums of 2014. No offence intended, but if you’re That Guy, who still sees Björk as a funny girl dressed as a swan on the red carpet, who once smacked a snapper around the chops at an airport, rather than an artist of singular inspiration and continuing commercial successes, there’s nothing for you to hear, here.
Brought forward in the release schedule after tracks leaked online, ‘Vulnicura’ is no disappointment to anyone who’s followed Björk’s progression from the naïve charm of ‘Debut’ through the changeling years of ‘Medúlla’ and ‘Volta’, and onto 2011’s nature-inspired but tech-gilded ‘Biophilia’. It might actually represent an unusual backwards step in terms of compositional topicality, bearing as it does at (several) times close similarity to 2001’s beats-and-strings set ‘Vespertine’. There’s little here that feels like ground she’s not covered previously, instrumentally at least.
But even if this nine-song collection represents a retreat from the very bleeding edge of creativity for an artist who regularly defines herself by progression into the unknown, you’ll hear no complaints from these ears. ‘Vespertine’ is a master-work by my reckoning, an emotionally resonant record that truly articulated the innermost desires of its maker in a way that felt less intrusive, more inclusive.
That LP didn’t shy from the flesh, from the physical – indeed, in places it was positively filthy. Yet it was always beautiful, too – additional production and programming from the likes of Matthew Herbert, Matmos and Valgeir Sigurðsson, beside the lion’s share from Björk herself, blessed the album with an icy, brittle vulnerability that contrasted the graphic lyricism, while complementing its intimate revelations in unexpectedly affecting fashion.
‘Vulnicura’ is directed by a different set of talents – Mute-signed Venezuela-born and London-based producer Arca collaborates on several cuts, and The Haxan Cloak features on ‘Family’ and mixes the whole thing; deeper down the credits, recording supervision comes from Michael Pärt, son of Arvo, and Antony Hegarty lends vocals to ‘Atom Dance’. But the resultant atmosphere is certainly an appealing analogue of its 2001 predecessor, bearing too some residual impressions of her 1997 LP ‘Homogenic’.
Opener ‘Stonemilker’ stirs into life with the subtle crunch and underplayed orchestral sweep synonymous with ‘Vespertine’, and in its arrangements ‘Vulnicura’ makes multiple nods to the past. ‘Mouth Mantra’ is twitchy of light digital percussion, a busy sketching of something Chris Clark made real in 2006 (it’s very ‘Body Riddle’), but ultimately carried by bold swathes of strings that rise and fall beside the lead vocal lines, breaking on occasion to reveal a choir. ‘Family’ is a incantation-like eight minutes that might encourage comparison with the sensually enveloping ‘Harm Of Will’ – until you hear the words, which come pointed here like rarely before, ambiguity torn from their delivery.
‘Vulnicura’ is heartbreak made music – a familiar conceptual core, but never something that Björk has made (quite such) a big deal about promoting in her songwriting. She’s summarised the lyrics of this album as “so teenage, so simple,” and there are ample examples of what she means.
‘History Of Touches’ explores the pleasure of physical addiction and exploration, but in the wider context of the LP can be seen to almost mark the collapse of that relationship. “Every single f*ck, we had together / Is in a wondrous time lapse, with us here at this moment” – “this moment” being the point of distance becoming too great to overcome, perhaps. “It was the most painful thing I ever experienced in my life,” the singer says of her separating from partner of 10 years, American artist Matthew Barney. And she’s not shied from putting these subsequent feelings of loss, of loneliness and distress, down beside music from a comfort zone: “The only way I could deal with [the break-up] was to start writing songs for strings.”
By wrapping the inspiration of fresh bruises in familiar, relatively warm sounds, Björk hasn’t realised a wholly new chapter of her recording career with ‘Vulnicura’. But that doesn’t lead to a listen that becomes samey, or so in thrall to the past that it has no place in 2015. The presence of Arca is a key element in anchoring these songs in the here and now, the producer’s own acclaimed debut LP ‘Xen’ only on the shelves for a few months.
It’s he who, one assumes, leads the electronic charge on tracks like the 10-minute centrepiece ‘Black Lake’ – “My protection is taken,” laments the singer, as those rich strings grow in volume, accommodating tumbling drums and more of those scratchy, fidgety micro-beats. And it’s he who directs the more aggressive electronics of ‘Notget’, which sees the lyrics take a turn for the truly bleak: “Without love, I feel the abyss / Understand your fear of death.”
But it’s not quite all-consuming gloominess – even as she’s positioned for a fall, Björk sings of how her partner’s spirit remains present, and that’s a positive. All pain presents us with a chance to heal, anew. ‘Quicksand’ is no bogged-down climax, its spirited production – this time with assistance from Irish producer Spaces, aka John Flynn – invigorating, seeing this album out with energy, with purpose and direction. You could even dance to it, assuming you can find the floor through the tears.
Like all Björk albums before it, ‘Vulnicura’ is the work of many but the vessel, really, for the voice – and everything that means – of just one persistently empowering talent. Pärt’s supervision means that the strings are never less than sublime, and Antony’s presence on ‘Atom Dance’ is a more interwoven duet than what was heard, for example, on 2007’s ‘The Dull Flame Of Desire’ – he’s almost more instrument than man beside her dominant performance. But that’s how it should be. Only Björk has been through these travails, seen out these most tumultuous tests, and only she could have articulated what she felt once all had settled into some sort of new normality in quite such a mesmerising manner.
Her voice is hers alone – and it shall always remain so, unequivocally unique. If you somehow consider it a stumbling block, you know what to do. ‘Human Behaviour’ was a lifetime ago, yet the singer of that phenomenal song continues to fascinate, to wrap the willing listener up in velvet vociferousness, even when the floor’s fallen away beneath her feet.
Words: Mike Diver
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