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Vulnicura Emily Mackay , January 22nd, 2015 22:06

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Well, this isn't what I hoped for from my new Björk album at all. I wanted, after Biophilia's crowning glory, a sparky fresh start. I wanted harsh beats, crackling energy, new ideas. What I got is a mortuary slab of cold, heavy pain, forensically picked over. Saying that, Vulnicura probably wasn't exactly what Björk hoped for either. But life happens to you, doesn't it? And Björk is the kind of person who, when life hands her a breakup, is going to make the monolithic mother and father of all breakup albums.

"Breakup album" seems a trite term, a genre too trivially mopey to fit this unflinching, devastating exploration. That sounds melodramatic, but Vulnicura is so intimate in its agonies, so clinical in its dissection that your brain, listening, tries to hide from it as if the pain was its own; and, as if the pain was its own, cannot.

The CD booklet makes clear how much this is a chronological diary of disaster, dating the songs according to their months before and months after Björk's split with Matthew Barney. The opening track, 'Stonemilker', finds Björk trying to shore up collapsing love, while at the same time noting: "moments of clarity are so rare; I better document this".

The sombreness of the music throws more weight on her words than ever before. Already it's clear that if you've come here seeking beats and bangers, you may as well be asking for poppers at a funeral; beautiful and stately as the cortege that Björk has crafted with her co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak is, this focus of this album is on the play of feelings. From the strings that sweep us in, we're in a very familiar sonic Björkland, but sparely drawn. The solutions too, that she offers to her situation are, at first, familiar. Björk's work, whether on a personal or social level, has always advocated emotional bravery and honesty, going at life, as here, "open-chested". So it's all the more devastating when it doesn't work.

'Lionsong's oddly chorused vocals only make Björk's voice sound even more alone. There's a huge, sad strength and defiance to it, but not the kind that wants, you're-gonna-hear-me-roar style, to celebrate itself: "Maybe he'll come out of this loving me/Maybe he won't/Somehow I'm not too bothered either way". Over the song's halting structures, she's never sounded more laid-open and vulnerable. And indeed, the title of the album, Vulnicura, suggests not just the search for a cure, but a scientific classification of vulnerability; Björk the naturalist, sticking pins in her own pain and carefully taxonomising it.

'History Of Touches' finds her doing this even as the ship sinks; seizing and multiplying the moment with memories before it slips away, trying to be in the relationship as hard as possible. It's heartbreaking, like an anti-'Hyperballad'. Whereas in that song, the narrator committed small acts of violence as her lover slept in order to exist more comfortably in the confines of a couple, here she wakes her partner to try and hold those confines down as the song's textures flicker.

It's beautiful as well as awful, but you know what's coming.'Black Lake'; the sound of a near bottomless-rock bottom; a Baikal of the dumped. Björk's voice is unbearable here, the strings devastatingly soft. "My soul torn apart/My spirit is broken/into the the fabric of all/He is woven." This song is also, thank god, the turning point. Though, as you'd expect with a real grief, Vulnicura doesn't plot a smooth arc back to health and happiness, there is a progression through these songs. 'Black Lake's 10 minutes is split with little caesuras, which feel like blank spaces beyond words. By the end of it, after a quiet crisis of ghostly beats and a string swell that grows to painful intensity, we find Björk starting to unpick that woven fabric, and facing outward in anger; "Did I love you too much? […] You have nothing to give/Your heart is hollow".

These sort of condemnations of those who don't stay true to love's guiding principle are familiar from listening to the likes of '5 Years' from Homogenic, but this time it's not enough to shake it off with a hearty, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and dance off into the next experience; in the last verse, she becomes a "glowing shiny rocket" burning off grief-layers in an atmospheric trial-by-fire. The really great thing about this heavy, intense album, as punishing as it is beautiful in its resolve, is that it shakes to the core the philosophies that Björk laid out so methodically on Biophilia, but she still finds a dark difficult way back to hope and love.

By 'Family', plagued by skittering beats like gnats, she's already striving forward: "How will I sing us out of this sorrow? Build a safe bridge for the child?" By the end, amid shimmering textures that recall the album version of 'All Is Full Of Love', she is raising "A monument of love/A swarm of sound […] It will make us a part of this universe of solutions".

Of course, it's not going to be quite so easy, and 'Notget' asserts Björk's continued right to grieve, 11 months on. She will neither regret nor forget her love: "Don't remove my pain/It is my chance to heal". The rhythms of the album here begin to quicken and throb with little martial drumrolls and string stabs, though the song's final mantra, "Love will keep us safe from death", is trotted out bitterly, with the tone of one who can't quite get good advice down their gullet just yet; as Björk keeps repeating it, her wordless cries reverberate, lost, further back in the mix.

'Atom Dance' takes comfort in Biophilias' ideas of love as the driving force on a cellular and subatomic level, Antony Hegarty's sorrowing moo a great foil to Björk's keener pain. "I am finetuning my soul to the universal wavelength/No one is a lover alone […] let this ugly wound breathe".

The emotional disinfection continues on 'Mouth Mantra', which heralds the return of Björk's voice; whether from couplehood or depression it isn't clear, except perhaps in the last line: "I have followed a path that took sacrifices/Now I sacrifice this scar/Can you cut it off?" The track breaks out in glitchy beats and chorused swoops, yet there's little jubilance. It's easy to read this track, even the whole album, in a simple way, along with Björk's late feminist flourishing; domesticity is stifling, creativity is freedom. Yet it's more often the betrayal of love and family, rather than their limitations, that are mourned on Vulnicura. That said, the ideas of surrender and and stifling also appear on Biophilia's 'Sacrifice' (which Björk said at the time was about a friend of hers) and the unequal burden often born by women in relationships seems to be on her mind.

'Quicksand', the most animated song, concludes the album and the healing process, its beats clipping along above the abyss, buoyed by little backing vocals. Strength is found by looking outward to a different idea of family; the roles of mother and daughter become blurred in a matriarchal chain that doesn't always sound too cosy. Is it Björk who is being spoken about in third person by the "generation of mothers… an everlasting necklace" who were celebrated in Biophilia's 'Hollow', or is it her own child? ""If she sinks/I'm going down with her … When we're broken we are whole/And when we're whole we're broken… every time you give up, you take away our future/And my continuity and my daughter's".

It's something to hang on to, but it's not exactly comfort. Vulnicura's recovery ends not with the warm fuzzy glow of the last item on a listicle about the stages of heartbreak, but with a tired, pale creature limping, battered and drained, out of a Pandora's box from which all the black shrieking hellbats have finally streaked. Because even it's not what anyone had hoped for, there's always fucking bastard hope, isn't there?

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Simone G.
Jan 22, 2015 2:51pm

Despite your all-too-apparent reticence you've actually made me want to really hear this LP.

Volta & Biophilia are both v. fine records, but ridiculously undervalued.

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Jan 22, 2015 3:41pm

You really got to express what one feels as a listener with this album. That awkwardness of not really wanting to get involved but you actually care and therefore force yourself to understand and be empathetic. This album certainly puts you to work.

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Jan 23, 2015 7:15am

Wow. I think now I do have to listen to the album.

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Tony ( tones ) Earley
Jan 23, 2015 5:05pm

I like Bjork! A break up from a serious relationship is like
your partner dying, I was once told. I thought yeah right, but when
it happened to me, I got a rude awakening. It is like a Death with
no Grave to go and mourn. I saw her live at Wembley Stadium
in London, many moons ago. I would like to wish her all the best!

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No Refugee
Jan 23, 2015 6:47pm

In reply to Tony ( tones ) Earley:

Please, Tones, tell us mor...zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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Colour Company
Jan 24, 2015 1:20am

What do you get when you combine elements of Vespertine, Medulla, Homogenic and Biophilia?

Vesdulniclia. Translated in English: Vulnicara.

An exploding mushroom trip of a search for a lost presence. It will conjure those bizarre feelings in your stomach that make you wonder why you can't just use the toilet, but unlike a psychedelic journey which would ordinarily make you feel closer to the connectedness of all energetic matter; there will be nothing left of you but an empty, cracked shell trying to piece itself together like humpty dumpty.

Under the heavy cloak of darkness, call on the ones you trust, the ones you love. Communication is key.

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Jan 24, 2015 6:12am

In reply to No Refugee:


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Jan 24, 2015 12:05pm

In reply to Colour Company:

Gorilla Glue, no?

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Jan 24, 2015 3:57pm

In reply to No Refugee:

Shut your spermburping mouth, cum eater

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Jan 26, 2015 4:12pm

In reply to Zet:

I eat cum and love it and am generally awesome.. People that eat cum and work to get it out make life worth living.. If you knew one you'd know

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Jan 27, 2015 6:27am

In reply to No Refugee:

What have you done to my sides?

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Rhonda Genuillo
Feb 1, 2015 1:12pm

In fact if we lived in a polygamous society we wouldn't have all this break up pain and disturbance. It would be as alien as Marmite is to the Yanomamo. That's her next project, a journey into healing polygamy.

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Phil Rusk
Feb 1, 2015 1:15pm

If you're really in love with bios you shouldn't be using all that electronic junk.

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Feb 2, 2015 3:20am

Not many people could call themselves a bigger fan of Bjork than I, but in my opinion, since Medulla, Bjork has not composed a memorable melody more than a handful of times. The songs on Vulnicura are meandering, purposeless, and sound like half-assed improvisations rather than functional compositions. But this is exactly what Bjork has done for the last decade-plus. Avant-garde music should at least keep your attention and/or screw with your head if it chooses to eschew melodic structure. Bjork simply has lost her ability to engage emotionally with ordinary people. I believe this further confirms my longstanding suspicion that millionaires simply cannot create art that speaks to people in a tone that is relatable.

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Seameen in mah butt
Feb 2, 2015 5:07am

Why is her chest a genitis

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Colour Company
Feb 8, 2015 7:43pm

In reply to Spackle:

Oh my goodness. I just remembered that I wanted to try find the film that I watched when I was a child called The Incredible Shrinking Woman and found a video clip called Galaxy Glue! Shit yeah! I see what you mean now.

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Feb 26, 2015 1:35am

In reply to ODDIST:

Oddist, are you for real? She fails to engage emotionally to ordinary people? If an entire music career was based upon constantly trying to make 'ordinary people' understand how you felt it would be a sad state for the evolution of an artist. I would say Virus on Biophilia is one of her most beautifully engaging songs and the fact you fail to recognise that shows more of a problem for you emotionally than her apparent failings as a musician.

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