So, I don't often write album reviews. Not here, not even on Amazon, because I always find it difficult to express in words how I feel about a musical/sonic experience, especially that of the work of an artist that I've admired since my teenage years. But I will try the best I can this time. I won't get into detail about why Björk means so much to me and why her music and art touches me so much on a personal level, but I definitely know why she's still so admired: she's unique, an original, an acquired taste, and yet, somehow, she manages to still be so...accessible and just simply wonderful. She makes the music that she wants, and does it on her own terms. Not even a handful of artist in this day and age---and hell, even before this age---have this kind of creative power and freedom. Above all, Björk is essentially one of very few contemporary artists who has made a name of herself by simply being her true self, nobody else. Over the years, her music has become less and less accessible to the masses, less pop, more avant-garde---some may even say ambitious and pretentious---but again, it's not that the woman doesn't care, it's just that she's ferociously independent and does what she wants, sharing us her music that really does get more different, exciting, eccentric, and brilliant. And fans love her for it and can't possibly ask for anything more. And as always, she gives us more.
So what makes Vulnicura so damn special?
I think many can easily compare this one to the sonically expressive, dark and icy landscapes of Homogenic. And some fans may even say that this album reaches that same glorious, epic heights as Vespertine with its lush soundscape that takes us so close to heaven that we can just see and taste it through her voice. I think those comparisons are fair, but I see Vulnicura as a beast of its own kind.
Vulnicura is darker, sadder, more heartbreaking. Let's face it, the big elephant in the room (or album) is Matthew Barney, her ex/father of their now teenaged daughter. Though Björk doesn't mention his name in any of the lyrics and didn't mention him in her statement on how this album is her "heartbreak album", it's made pretty loud and clear throughout the album and in the lyrics that their relationship is over, their love and bond is broken, and Björk is left trying to musically document her emotions, feelings, and mourning during that dark period of her life. The name of the album to me is a clever play on vulnerable and cure. Such a perfect play on words, perfect for this masterpiece.
This is the most "naked", personal, and honest that Björk has been since Homogenic and Vespertine. This is not an album chock full of singles that you'd hear on the radio or in the club (it's not Debut or Post). The most accessible (possibly the only "radio friendly") track on Vulnicura is the sweeping, majestic opener, Stonemilker. And even that's a stretch. None of these songs are "pop", and yet it's too "pop" to be "classical". It's simply Björk, and this is her opening her heart and bearing her soul to the world about a universal feeling: love, and the burden of carrying this dark pain once its gone. You can truly feel her pain in what is the real star of the album, Black Lake, the longest and definitely saddest and most heartbreaking track on the album. And the most personal, with its many hints to Björk's lost love. And then there's Lionsong, which sounds like Björk's denial ("maybe he will come out of this/loving me/maybe he won't") while also accepting that their love "has reached its peak and transformed". With all this darkness, there's also that light that wakes up her "stubborn clock" to see the sense of it all. She looks back on the memories with History of Touches of the last time they'd ever express their love physically, intimately, and romantically. Family, though sonically dark, complex, and haunting, humbles her and helps her to pay respects to that relationship though lost, still created something more important than love: "a mother, a woman, a father, a child." Notget is another soul bearer---a post-break up song---seeming to speak to her love while also being a declaration of her newfound freedom from pain and death while also trying to analyze the meaning of that and love itself, and how though their pain is the same, they both must heal differently. Often people compare a breakup to death and mourning. This song sums up those feelings, and has the beats and strings that makes it another breathtakingly sonic experience. Atom Dance is her solution and cure from her pain by "dancing to earth, transformation". And by being at one with the universe and with that "atom dance", the "ugly wound" will instead be a celebration where "hearts feel their own home." This song features the gorgeous Antony Hegarty making a cameo. Together, they propose for us to dance this "atom dance" and be whole again. But after that dance, we're taken back to the reality of how a breakup can silence us, and make us "numb, banned from making noise." Mouth Mantra may very well be the sister of Homogenic's "Pluto," except instead of angry, it's melancholy, honest about the pain, and yet, strong with its cry of "I am not hurt." That negativity, that feeling of wanting to "implode" in this "black hole", is turned into triumph ("Now I sacrifice this scar") and even gratitude ("I thank this trunk"). Quicksand may also be the love child of "All Is Full of Love", showing respect to the "abyss". Here, I was moved by these lyrics:
When I am broken, I am whole
And when I'm whole, I am broken
But with that, Björk feels like her feelings are like "a mother's philosophy," a "quicksand" that she's going down with. Taking the pain, the hurt, that black lake, and that darkness with her. And then there's the light, her daughter. Ultimately, Björk warns that "every time you give up, you take away our future, and my continuity and my daughter's." Could that be her speaking to Matthew Barney, or just a general declaration of how love, at the end of it all, conquers all, even pain, darkness, and death?
The song ends in a pretty abrupt way that is somewhat upsetting and strange, and yet...maybe in some way, that was calculated, since love can easily just end like that, and still leave us yearning for answers to all those questions we feel before and after love. After love's afterlife, what then? What happens next? What do we do? What should we do? How must we feel? Should we feel at all?
There are many solutions, many answers, and many philosophies that can answer those questions, and Björk explores that in what truly is her most personal album to date. It's a "heartbreak" album indeed, and is as "universal" as Björk herself hoped it would be. Again, her music nowadays isn't meant to be "accessible", but is it universal? Yes indeed. And is this album worth all its hype?
Yes, and I'm not saying that just because I adore her and her work. Even though this album wasn't meant to come to us this early, Björk was so clever by not addressing the leak, but simply giving us her art the right way, right now (digitally, anyway), while having us wait until March to release it physically as was originally planned. Even if we did have to wait 2 months from now, Vulnicura would have been worth the wait. It's as amazing as was anticipated. The beats and string arrangements are gorgeous, and the collaboration between Arca and The Haxan Cloak is a match made in heaven. In more ways than one, Vulnicura reminds us as to why Björk is an international treasure, so original, unique, loved and respected. I thought she reached her peak at Vespertine, but Vulnicura proves that her genius is still lush, powerful, thriving, and somehow, just beginning.