Albums that come out of heart break are sometimes the hardest to listen to; the album that I am reviewing now is called 'Vulnicara' and is the ninth studio album by Björk Guðmundsdóttir who is known around the world by her first name - Björk. It has been a difficult time according to Björk as this album deals with the aftermath of her breakup with artist Matthew Barney. Björk has stated that she used to album to distract herself during this difficult time and it must be strange to put your personal on display in such an open and frank way. I do not think things were made easier when the album was leaked two months early forcing her to bring forward the digital release (the psychical release still happened in March 2015). The whole venture that was supposed to part of a triple threat including the release of a book called Björk: Archives and an exhibition that happened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, America. It may not have gone to plan, but the album has been very successful all around the world. Now it does have two sets of external producers (not including Björk herself who worked on the production side of the album as well) in the form of Arca and The Haxan Cloak. Now I avoided this review as I do not want to shit on the album if I do not like the album as it is obviously a personal release for Björk, but I have had a few requests for it and my hand has been forced. Let us see how this album has turned out....
Starting the album is “Stone Milket” and you are introduced to a sea of wonderful strings, gentle percussion, minimal electronic effects and Björk sounding wounded, a bit confused and seeking clarification to the situation. The heart breaking moments where she is questioning the place she finds herself, the aftermath of the event and wanting to make a record of that moment to keep focus on this event. It is a subtle song and very raw, it is not the usual off the wall, avant-garde number we have come to expect from Björk and it is the best I have heard from her since “Play Dead” which I still think of as her crowning glory. As the opening track of the album, it engages the listener straight away and it also lets you know that you are not in for an easy ride. “Lion Song” starts with a sea of clashing voice and a fierce denial of the singer’s feelings which actually boil just below and she is questioning the feelings she is having; she states she is not bothered but somehow it sounds more as if she is not looking in the mirror, because if she was not bothered then this song would not exist. This is back to a familiar sound with Björk and it plays with strange electronica and you are thrown from side to side at times, a bit like the subject matter and it sounds incredibly harsh, desolate and in some places just plan bizarre. It is another strong track, a little bit more like the Björk of the last album 'Biophilia' but with those extra edges for the pain. Track three is “History of Touches” and this noise piece is very painful, remembering all the time that touching, every hand hold, every fuck, every emotion that happened which is condensed to that second and that last touch; this is the shortest song on the album but it is one of the darkest moments and it is not easy going. Be very careful with that number, it is strange, wonderful, painful and frightening at the same time.
The shortest track is then followed by the longest track called “Black Lane”. This makes everything that has gone before hand sound like the theme for a children’s cartoon. The strings, the electronic noises, Björk sounding like a ghost whispering in the silence and reflecting on what has gone on and the destruction of the break up is uneasy to listen to as most people will have been in such a place at times. As the song goes along, the drums pick up and the strings start to sound angrier as is the nature of when a person starts to feel emotional and it can overwhelm a person at times. The sense of betrayal and loss which is very much at the centre of this album as nailed to masts on this number and just when you think it is over, she comes back with more and it is waves after wave of emotions that break the spirit of anyone who is listening – this is a release for Björk, but it is hard on the listener; to say it is beautiful is the wrong word, but it is a song that truly reaches in and makes you reflect on your own emotional experiences. With sonic vibrations and a similar emptiness "Family" is a song about the mourning of the family coming to an end, together with new dynamic when there is a child in the middle of a happy home coming to an end. The maternal instinct to want to protect the child from the hardships of the situation and find a safe place is a basic human desire - this cry for help is almost neatly in two halves, the first has a similar style to Robert Logan and when the strings come in it becomes a new dramatic avant-garde piece with the tidal feel of the album coming in and out again. There is hope in here amongst the desolation, Björk is on fine vocal form once again, she lynches all of this together as if she is hanging on by the skin of her teeth. The atmospheric ending of the song is also very stunning, almost link "A Warm Place" by Nine Inch Nails off 'The Downward Spiral'. With the sound of a sea shanty on horror keyboards "Not Get" is almost like relief in a given sense of the word. Björk is musing how the pain of the end can be the source of her healing process, she finally understands her ex-partner's fear of death and wonders aloud about how the healing process from the wounds of the breakup are different to each person. Musically, it is all over the place; you cannot settle into the tune as it is changing constantly and it has an aggressive undertone about it. The strange keyboards, the ever changing percussions and all the other working sounds like the nightmares between waking.
With an a Capella start "Atom Dance" is a song that talks about taking the layers of dead loves from the heart and healing, but it is the work of the addition and removing of layers on a regular basis. The song features vocals from Antony Hegarty from Antony and The Johnsons, the contrast in voices is unnerving in places, but at times when they synch into place it is very smooth and incredibly uplifting. The desire to heal is on open showing here and it is also has contrast of fearing the home and not wanting to be alone; like the music it is a bit confusing in places, but ultimately rewarding track. The penultimate track of this album is "Mouth Mantra" and what we have here is the desire to be heard, the freedom of speech and the ability to be able to say what needed to be said. Producers Björk and Arca have created an electronica master piece for me on this album, the rich textures of the sound are distortedly beautiful and the desire for freedom and to gains one voice back is an uplifting moment of this album as Björk is rediscovering herself once more, this is for me the one of the best moments on this album and have a piece of everything that has been happening on this album - it also has a rebellious streak and hope mixed into the song. Ending the album is "Quicksand" and this is almost the light at the end of the tunnel or maybe the acceptance that at the present you can be both broken and whole at the same time. It is that acceptance that the situation is ongoing that makes this song the perfect place to end this chapter of Björk and the album - you can still feel that there is currents untouched under the surface and the little last razor-like words when she is feeling the abandonment of her partner and what it does to her child and the family going forwards erupts and then it is all over.
This album is not easy going, it is not a relaxing experience and it is as dark as an expresso in a Parisian cafe. There is very little on this album that is anything other than desolate and broken; but it is also a beautiful and fragile album, I do not think I have heard Björk in better form and the songs are all very engaging. If there was a weak moment on the album, I would say it was "Atom Dance" as the presence of Antony Hegarty (as beautiful as his performance is) distracts from the majestic performance of Björk which is all dominating. But even that track is a strong and powerful number on an album that might not be full of hits; it is not that type of record - it is full of emotions. The production by Arca (who works on most of the album), The Haxan Cloak (who help with "Family" and Björk herself is perfect to within an inch, I have not heard an album like this in an awful long time and you feel the pain in your heart with every note. You are not given a chance at any point to rest as the healing is a long way off. This is probably the best I have heard Björk ever, it is the darkest I have ever heard Björk and it will sadly be an album that I cannot listen to that often - it is that dark a moment. To only be listened to when you need to hear that someone else understand and when you need reminded of where you have been. Approach with care, but be amazed at the resulting album.
10 out of ten - This is proof there is a god (albeit with a black heart)
Top track - Mouth Mantra
You can purchase the album from Amazon here
You can visit the Björk website here
You can follow Björk activities on Facebook here
Björk has not at the time of this review let this album go on any streaming service; if this changes, I will update links at that point. Not a comment either way, it is always the artist rights to choice which way their work is released (and rightly so on that one).