An online leak may have initially led the headlines for the rush online release of Bjork’s latest album Vulnicura, but that soon faded into the pale as the most deeply personal album of heart-break seems to have taken everyone by surprise with its sombre mood and sweeping strings. In many ways it’s easy to see why.
Bjork’s string arrangements immediately shine with the epic “Stonemilker” which opens the album with broad-strokes and with a Homogenic thickness. The percussive loops are also huge and full of echo but it’s like the heart has slowed to a standstill as the melancholy sets in. It’s a track the immediately impresses and is memorable in tune, tone and scale as she wails “show me emotional respect”. The lyrics in this album has no veil at all – it’s all bleeding out the speakers and its refreshing to see how raw it all is. “Lionsong” has a wonderful warped feel throughout the track. It’s percussion twists through phasers, the vocals when they twin up battle for attention and phase across each other and the strings have an Eastern twist to them. It’s simply gorgeous as the Icelandic queen reels off how many emotions her ex seemed to have. You can feel her frustration and also in some ways how she is becoming indifferent to the whole thing – a weary warrior in the warped twinned vocal. “History of Touches” is one of only two sub five-minute tracks and at just three, has something of a restoration feel to it. It’s pretty, playful and has some lovely string arrangements in spite of the subject matter.
The ten minute epic that is “Black Lake” is something that could divide people. It’s opening four minutes are a sombre, miserable dirge of trampled strings that are lifeless and struggle to sound anything than defeated and claustrophobic. After that percussive flairs begin to take off and life and vitality to the middle section before becoming more a raj to close out the track. It’s full of emotion and epically long and if you’re not ready for it, you’ll be taken off guard. I get it and I feel every ache, but sometimes it feels two minutes too long because of that – sometimes it feels not long enough. Strange how music does that…
“Family” is a stand out for me. It’s destructive metallic slices and doom booms over wavering strings allow Bjork to let her voice roar before everything shivers and quakes. These squeals of pain and anguish give way to the warmest section of the album. The closing half of the track is like a heavenly aura of shimmering strings and synths that rotate around a beautiful chord pattern and then very slowly fade out whilst going down the octaves. Here I really appreciate that it takes its time and leaves me feeling like I’ve been reborn anew – pulling clear from the misery and suffering. “Notget” takes on a militant edge with marching drumbeats and staunch, angry string arrangements. I can see this one really going nuts in a live show and sits firmly in the Vertebrae by Vertebrae camp as something you want to scream to.
“Atom Dance” has Anthony Hegarty provide additional vocals over the skipping and circus like waltzing strings and beats. The crackles, whips and snaps of the beats really work well here and the never-ending merry-go-round is an interesting turn of tune as it slowly washes over itself before exploding into mysterious machine like Ghibli/Bjork musical collaboration. In my head anyway! “Mouth Mantra” continues the more shifty, waltz-like skipping and flitting around. It feels more freeform and scatty than everything that’s come before it like Bjork is searching for something. It has a Biophilia feel to it and the rolling percussion really elevates the tone, mood and urgency of everything. Closer “Quicksand” is the only high-flying track that kicks off the shoes and really gets a good beat going, like getting back into the swing of life again. However, the sound palette strangely doesn’t work nearly so well. The percussion is too thin for it to burst full of dance floor vibes and so it feels like an interstellar light show instead. It also ends abruptly like it wasn’t sure if it was going into another song!
Vulnicura is curious. It’s wonderfully complex and at times it repels you away. If you choose to listen and give it time and patience, there is an emotional wreck of an album waiting to encapsulate you. It goes absolutely the full hog in and the vast majority of the album works as a result. She hasn’t made a dud studio album yet and so long as she stays true to her artistic fight and spirit, I don’t see her stepping near a dud anytime soon.