Björk Vulnicura

[One Little Indian; 2015]

Styles: modern fairytales, love songs
Others: Arca, Jenny Hval, Julia Holter, the Knife, Lars von Trier

Vulnicura is a deeply tortured album. It is tortured in the way that the conversations in your head are. The arguments and confessions that rattle back and forth inside your skull. Waves of monologue rippling through brain tissue, sputtering and sloshing about in the white noise wash of a continuous feedback loop. Tortured like the endless second guesses. Tortured like the motivational untruths you tell yourself before bed. Tortured like the nightmares that come anyway. Tortured like waking up in a cold sweat, tangled in the sheets of an empty bed. Tortured like realizing you weren’t dreaming.

This was not the album I was expecting.

What was I expecting?

When it was first incorrectly announced that Björk had taken on the young Venezuelan producer Arca as the sole producer of her ninth album, more than a few writers here at Tiny Mix Tapes took gleeful notice. After a collection of increasingly remarkable mixtapes, a pair of high-profile collaborations, and an absolutely masterful debut album with last year’s Xen, the news that Arca would take the helm on the next Björk album was perversely thrilling, like an immaculate consummation. It felt like we were on the brink of a potential tour de force from one of experimental pop’s most promising prodigies, bolstered by one of its old vanguards. It’s a formula we’ve seen before — her appearance alongside Dirty Projectors back in 2010, her vocal samples on last year’s Death Grips release, her collaborations with the likes of Brian Chippendale and Chris Corsano on Volta, to name a few examples — so it seemed almost entirely reasonable that Arca should be the next recipient of what might be mistaken as little more than a passive celebrity endorsement.

This is not that album.

As a reviewer, it is a dirty secret that the album that we listen to and the album we choose to intellectualize are often two very different things. Of course, this is to some degree an inevitability: the moment you try to bridge the gaps between music and text, between artist and audience, between creator and critic, a distortion must necessarily occur. But at its worst, the idea of what an album might be becomes so seductive that music itself becomes incidental, conformed to the imperatives of a preconceived schema. You start listening for the details you want to write about. And after a couple listens, it becomes easier and easier to convince yourself that you hear them.

Vulnicura is that rare, humbling album that manages to obliterate all expectation, forcing the listener and the critic to start from scratch, to perceive anew. Because no matter how excited I was for the album that I had already constructed in my head, this is not that album. It is not some sterile academic exercise. It is not some pristine thought experiment. It is not a fashion object, a wall ornament. It is not even an Arca album. This is broken music. This is tortured, wracked noise. This is music that gnaws at your bones. And make no mistake, this is every second Björk’s album. And it is nothing short of breathtaking.

Somewhere amongst all the collective fetishizing of Arca’s involvement on the project, the media press lost sight of the fact that Vulnicura might have its own story to tell. It wasn’t until my first listen that it occurred to me that I was listening to a breakup album. And not some Top 40, Taylor Swift, soap opera melodrama of a breakup album. Vulnicura is the document of that one breakup that can define a lifetime. It is a chronicle of the final days of Björk’s relationship with her partner of 10 years. The loss of her child’s father. The death of a family.

If the heartbreak album has gone stale from too many artists co-opting the genre as a childish exercise in self-indulgence and rationalization, Vulnicura might be seen as Björk’s attempt to salvage it, to give it meaning again. She presents her story without pretense, demanding neither our sympathy nor our support. Just that we listen. Because if we listen closely, what we find is a portrait of heartbreak as whispered in secret, uttered in the unspeakable language of the catacombs in her own head. It is a story laced in contradiction, self-doubt, uncertainty, insecurity, pain. It is a story without heroes or villains. But there are monsters. And if there’s a pair of minotaurs waiting at the end of this labyrinth, Björk knows better than anyone that she is one of them.

The result is Björk’s most frighteningly intimate album to date. But this is not to say that Arca had no role to play. Just the opposite, it is Björk’s intense ownership of Vulnicura that reveals just how much trust has been placed in the young producer. One listen to the haunting synergy between the two musicians on “Lionsong” or “Notget” and it becomes immediately clear that Björk has recognized in Arca a shared thematic and musical kinship. After all, if last year’s Xen can be distilled to a single theme, it would be the dissolution of the body as a distinct unit, the blurring of all demarcation and gender in the slow ooze of melting wax and the glitched stutter of CGI. Granted, Arca handles this subject with brilliant nuance and extraordinary ingenuity, but we are reminded here that he was hardly the first artist to tread this ground. Indeed, these are themes Björk has been prototyping throughout her entire career: her fascination with the body as the malleable and sensual interface between our interior and exterior experience made visible on the cover of every album she’s produced. Whether its the shy and alluring newcomer on the cover of 1993’s Debut, or the extraterrestrial warrior on 1997’s Homogenic, or the billowing human supernova on 2011’s Biophilia, with every new album comes a new Björk, a new persona to embody and physicalize the music trapped inside the plastic.

What Björk’s mentorship gives Arca is not so much a leash to restrain him, but rather a lens with which to focus his massive creative energies. Drawing upon the emotional experience that only a musician entering her fourth decade of work can offer, Björk takes Arca’s fascination with bodily mutability and collapse and expands it outward, redirecting his focus away from the individual as an isolated and solipsistic atom and out toward the molecules and families we unite to form with one another, however briefly. The result is the sort of infinite maturation that I’m convinced only parenthood can teach, the realization that you are part of something so much bigger than yourself, that you are now bound to those outside of you by both boundless empathy and boundless responsibility — the realization that the ties that are the most fragile and most precious are not the ones inside you, but the narrow lifelines that connect you to those you love. Perhaps this is why I find Vulnicura so much more difficult and provocative than any Arca release yet, not because it is more obscure or more abstract, but because it is so blindingly clear, honed so tightly toward a single intensely emotional core.

The result is not a fun listen. I don’t expect it to soundtrack a fashion show anytime soon. But if you still believe — as I desperately try to believe — that music has the capacity to offer catharsis, to console and heal and speak to some shared human experience, however slight, then maybe Vulnicura can be a balm for our shattered souls. It is the sort of album that confounds headphones and demands to be played aloud on speakers, to echo through space and find its way through many different sets of ears. Whatever the cynic might say, this is an album that tells its story not for attention or money or fame. These are surely three things Björk has never been lacking. Rather, it tells its story to remind us that these are brittle castles, that they offer little shelter from the pain in our hearts and the voices in our heads. The voices that find us in our most desperate moments and scrape against our hollow skulls. The voices we bottle up inside because we think we’re the only ones hearing them.

“When I’m broken I am whole/ And when I’m whole I’m broken” Björk intones on the album’s final track. It’s a line of such beautiful and naïve simplicity that you can’t help but feel it must be a universal truth. Like the gracefully solemn figure on the album’s cover — chest rent open in the sensual pucker of a gaping lesion, body burst into a cloud of delicate dandelion fibers — perhaps we too are balanced on the brink of unity and collapse, waiting for the plunge of a knife or the grip of a strong breeze to rupture and scatter us. But in this fleeting moment, just before it all falls apart, Björk reminds us what monstrous and sublime beauty there is for us to behold. Vulnicura generously allows us to linger here for 59 minutes, suspended in that frozen split second between the windowpane and the shatter, just as the glass begins to erupt in a thousand cracked snowflakes.

Links: Björk - One Little Indian


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