If the best art really does come out of the most personally trying situations, then Björk’s eighth studio album, Vulnicura certainly upholds that theory. On the day that the album leaked on iTunes (two months before the original release date), the Icelandic artist posted on her Facebook page that Vulnicura is, “a complete heartbreak album.” And true to her word, Vulnicura documents the dissolution of her more-than-a-decade-long relationship with avant-garde visual artist Matthew Barney.
The nine tracks on Vulnicura document this distraught nature “in pretty much accurate emotional chronology,” Björk writes. Liner notes detail the timing in proximity to the dreaded breakup—opening “Stonemilker” is “9 months before,” whereas the 10-minute “Black Lake” is “2 months after.” In the first few lines of the opening “Stonemilker,” she speak-sings, “Moments of clarity are so rare,” rolling each “r” to the extreme as a preface to the jittering, teeth-chattering that such anxiety can bring. Later, in the first movement of the eight-minute opus “Family,” she wonders, “Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family? Show some respect between the three of us? There is the mother and the child. Then there is the father and the child, but no man and a woman, no triangle of love.” The middle section of the song repeats a mantra of “father/mother/child” if just saying the words will unite the people who used to make up a family. In the end, though, after a interlude of spastic, scraping cellos, Björk cries for her child—too often the most tragic victim in matters of divorce—wailing in layered octaves, “god save our daughter/god save our daughter.”
Musically, Björk channels her despair in extremes. Having co-produced the album with Venezuelan DJ Arca (who recently gained notoriety for working with FKA Twigs and Kanye West) and British ambient musician The Haxan Cloak, she crafts a record in some ways reminiscent of her work form the late 1990s. Classical strings (provided by the U Strings ensemble), beats and electronic accents define Vulnicura; few other instruments other than her voice appear. The pitched beats in “Notget” twist in agitated motions as a deep house bass boils beneath, morphing from a ticking grandfather clock to a dirge. “Atom Dance” begins like an off-kilter waltz—in five beats per measure, rather than three—as the upper strings play in jerking staccato. But as the song evolves, a synthy R&B interlude abruptly trumps the violins and violas, sparring with them throughout the song. The album ends with “Quicksand,” which pairs the most frenetic beats with her most melodic singing.
Complexity and metaphors reign on Vulnicura. The stark, dueling musical styles invoke a rare intricacy and intimacy that seem to represent her mixed emotions of fear, anger, depression and sadness. But Björk manages not to make her suffering sound self-indulgent on Vulnicura. Offering her stories in honest and often anthropological ways allows her to communicate her pain in the most objective ways. So while the swan of Björk’s past may have manifested itself in a 2001 wardrobe, a swan song for an artist this record is not. Rather, Vulnicura marks a bold return for such a storied singer.