A lot of press has been given to the way in which this album has been released. Rushed out to the public after an illegal leak, many people are too busy comparing this incident to the leak of Madonna’s album rather than talking about the actual music. To truly get a grasp of this fascinating work we must release it from this context, seeing it instead more timelessly – far from our 21st century obsession with the lack of privacy and control artists seem to hold over their own work. This is a good old-fashioned break up album, pure and simple.
The literal translation of Vulnicura is “cure for wounds”, this album shows us Björk attempting to work through and cure her own wounds from the end of her relationship with long-time partner Matthew Barney. It is probably fitting that, using this as a source of inspiration, Björk has produced her best album in years, just as her last undeniably great album Vespertine was inspired by the start of that same relationship. Instead of that album’s startlingly simple centrepiece ‘Pagan Poetry’ with its spell-like invocation of the repeated cry “I love him”, we are faced by a very different beast here.
At the heart of this album is the ten minute song ‘Black Lake’ and, whilst the whole album is about Barney, this specifically is the post-mortem of their relationship which she wrote two months after its end. This song in many respects seems to be a challenging of ‘Pagan Poetry’. As Björk questions here “Did I love you too much?” we see how hurt this experience has left her – “I am one wound / My pulsating body / Suffering being.” On the song ‘Family’ Björk claims she is looking for a place where she can mourn: “The death of my family”. With this album, Björk creates for herself that space of mourning. This is her healing process, no matter how painful and bleak it may seem.
But, of course, you don’t have to be familiar with the discography of Björk to enjoy this album. The fact that this is a break-up album, a form so many of us are already familiar with, makes it the perfect starting point for someone new to Björk. Even if you don’t want to, or cannot, connect with it on this level the album is still worth listening to, Björk’s voice has always been a malleable instrument many other vocalists can only dream of having. It blends perfectly into the equally beautiful and brutal landscape that producers of the moment Arca and The Haxan Cloak have created for her, and you can easily listen to this album without even noticing the words she is saying.
In recent years Björk has been trying to change the way we listen and understand music with her fancy apps that were apparently necessary for Biophilia and she had been planning to continue on in that same vein until personal events created Vulnicura. Whilst it may seem perverse to take joy in someone else’s suffering, I for one am delighted we have this musical treasure back, with one of her greatest albums yet.
By Harry Rosehill