Bjork's music has taken on a considerably progressive hue.
Vulnicura, Bjork’s eighth studio album, means ‘curing of wounds’. And I can think of no better encapsulation for it: a nine-song suite in which a woman hands herself her own heart and figures out how to make it beat again. It is a document of unparalleled openness in which Bjork becomes a coroner analysing the events and unexposed emotions that lead to the demise of her relationship with artist Mathew Barney, indexing every scar and trauma with the precision and heroism of a Jungian self-analyst holding a looking glass to her own unconscious, and refusing to look away for even a second, even as her eyesight grows sore and distorted through the tears.
This is not an album in which the listener factors in a great deal. In her previous album ‘Biophilia’, Bjork got to play Master of Ceremonies to her own Macrocosm, both shaman and scientist, as she hierophantically took us on a tour through the universe, holding up crystals and atoms in her palms for us to see and be amazed by, infinity readily within the reach of her finite grasp. But in Vulnicura all such authority and intergalactic savvy has evanesced in the face of a subject matter much more intangible. With her trademark humanity, compassion, and bravery, she allows us to bear witness to songs so painful she can barely stand to listen to them, and sings words which, were she to speak them, would leave her feeling muted and mauled.
Because of this unlimited exposure, the listener is momentarily placed in a position of moral uncertainty, like a person stumbling upon their lover’s secret diary, or pulling out their personal file from a psychotherapist’s drawer, We question our right to even listen to a record of such unguarded privacy. But Bjork puts us at ease: provided we accord her with “emotional respect” and have the courage and humility to “synchronize our feelings” with hers, as she requests in the opening track ‘Stonemilker’, then no need for contrition on our part will arise.
The thing that most amazes me about Vulnicura is its maturity. Countless albums and songs have been produced detailing the rigors of heartbreak. All too often they are jejune, selfish, and thoughtless: egotistical catalogs of bitterness, revenge, hatred, self-pity and lionization that would make any Buddhist despair over people’s irresponsibility regarding their own emotions. But Vulnicura might as well have a warning label on it reading ‘SELF-DELUSION NOT ALLOWED’ or ‘COMPLETE HONESTY ONLY’. No emotion or issue is too hidden or difficult for Bjork to seek to unearth it and share it with us, persevering stolidly onwards in her exploratory mission of understanding and alchemy, transforming futility into hope; betrayal into renewal.
The instrumentation on the album is sparse; the timbre combining the cold clinicism of the surgeon’s operating table with the tenebrific floods of bottomless, space-like grief. Bjork’s fragmented heart is stitched precariously back together, song by song, by the seemingly disparate textures of strings, glacial synths, and programmed electronic percussion, as she narrates the traumatic unravelling of her divided heart. Step by step, we get an itinerary of the cyclical process of degeneration, separation, and reclamatory individuation. In ‘Lionsong’ the relationship has not yet been fully extinguished. Reaching through the dense fog of her partner’s alienation, she seeks reabsorption with him through the tenacity of her love. But even at this early stage she recognizes that the gulf between them may be unbridgeable, singing ‘maybe he will come out of this/maybe he won’t’ before moving on to the hopefully reversible reminiscences of ‘History of Touches’. But on arriving at ‘Black Lake’ we find that the game has changed forever. The best and most intense song on the album, it serves as a pivot point, a quietly dramatic ten-minute opus, in which every self-analysis is separated by a pause of shimmering strings, as her feelings develop towards the relationship’s inevitable end, as matters exploring how to maintain familial intactness in the light of this tragedy are brought gruellingly to the fore.
This sense of deconstruction is pervasive throughout the album, and percolates down to the very composition of the songs themselves. Bjork’s music has always been innovative and experimental, but ever since Biophilia, her music has taken on a considerably progressive hue. Her connection to pop music has become increasingly more estranged, standard structuring being thrown out the window as she eschews all archaic paradigms in pursuit of her indomitable spirit.
Another new element to the music is the confidence that comes to a person after having spent a long time thoroughly exploring the geography of their own interests. As with David Bowie in his last three albums, Bjork has reached a new stage in her career in which she can create new music by having recourse to the palette of musical colours she has innovated in the past, the whole album glistening with the strings of ‘Homogenic’, occasional snatches of the unconventional vocal harmonies of ‘Medulla’, the emotional iridescence of ‘Vespertine’, and the orientalism of ‘Volta’ and ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ all finding their way into its therapeutic crucible.
What you get out of the album ultimately depends on what you put in. If you put this album on in the background, it is likely only to reach you in snatches. But if you are willing to come together with it, and meet with it completely, you may find yourself experiencing something only the key of compassion can unlock: the wonder of the courage it takes just to be human, and the inevitability of love. Separation and degeneration may be unconquerable, but the radiant reawakening of the immortal self always awaits us at the end.
And so I shall depart from you by quoting from the last verse of ‘Black Lake’:
I am a glowing shiny rocket
As I enter the atmosphere
I burn off layer by layer
Vulnicura is available for purchase on iTunes. The hardcopy and vinyl editions of the album will be released on March 9th in conjunction with the book ‘Bjork: Archives’ and an exhibition of her career at The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.