By Alexa Solis
When most people think of Björk, they think of the infamous swan dress that she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards. Björk is known for pushing the envelope both in her music and performances, and she continues her avant-garde legacy in her ninth studio album titled “Vulnicura.”
Opening track “Stonemilker” is soft and melodic, with everything from the soaring orchestral sound to her pleading voice entreating the listener to open themselves to her emotions. The ambient echoes of the electronic instrumentation in connection with her grief-stricken vocals encapsulate the kind of vulnerability that permeates the entire album.
The record strikes a moody combination of electronic sounds, orchestration and Björk’s forlorn vocals. Far from being a dance inducing, glimmering electronic record, the album is dark and theatrical. There is a sense of the fantastic throughout the songs that fits in well with Björk’s previous work, and each track fits into a sonic landscape of cliffs and valleys.
The sound throughout the album is massive, and Björk’s arrangements ebb and flow, much like the pulsating pain of a broken heart.
The melancholy sounds that make up the nine tracks are incredibly complex and can be a bit overwhelming at times, but there is a balance. Björk knows when to follow a heavy, despondent 10-minute-long epic with a shorter, lighter, punchier look at pain, and she does so with an expert touch.
“Family,” the fifth track on the album, encapsulates the overall tone of the work. The song begins with staccato strings, enveloped by drawn-out synths, all the while being punctuated by Björk’s ethereal voice. The lyrics are difficult to understand, but her message is loud and clear: ⎯ love hurts.
Björk’s breakup with longtime love Matthew Barney inspired her somber and heart-wrenching look at loss and gives the listener an undisguised picture of her beating heart. Björk’s open wound on the cover art signifies her pain before the first track even begins to play, and the feeling only deepens from there.
As with any breakup, there are stages from denial to acceptance and the heart-wrenching sadness in between. Björk captures all of this in the 57-minute-long “Vulnicura.” The musical arrangements maintain the sort of soaring heights that one would expect out of an electronic record and its lush composition only lends to the album’s poignancy.
There is no anger in the lyrics or the composition, ⎯ only the kind of introspective examination that follows a traumatic life event. The lyrics and music are somewhat of a synopsis of the most painful elements of human existence, and that experience is harrowing.
Subject matter aside, “Vulnicura” is not an easy listen. The complex musical arrangements compete, yet combine with Björk’s deeply contemplative and pained lyrics. While the formula works successfully, the album is not for the faint of heart.
That being said, the album is acutely human, which for Björk, is a feat in and of itself. With extravagant and ornate costumes that are often as alienating as the complex arrangements and rhythms in Björk’s music, it is often hard to identify with Björk’s work. The theatrics that accompany Björk’s music are still very much a part of “Vulnicura.” However, every aspect of the record cuts down to her bleeding heart and puts it on broad display.
Although the album is not for everyone, it’s a candid look at a time in the artist’s life that is filled with darkness and doubt. Every cadence, every drop, every set of building violins weaving with the painfully sung lyrics are integral to making one of the best breakup albums in recent memory.
Alexa Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @thealexasolis.