Early in 2015, Bjork dropped an album from out of nowhere. A messy get-it-out-its-been-leaked digital download was unfortunate for an album that required patience and dedication to uncover all its gems and love. I needed to time to truly enjoy it but now many months on I really do. The string arrangements on the album are excellent and Vulnicura Strings essentially pairs those arrangements with Bjork’s voice for a more classical rendition of most of the album.
“Mouth Mantra” opens proceedings taking the dramatic and claustrophobic eruption and making it feel like a disjointed waltz. With the absence of crushing percussive loops, it turns into a collage of voices and strings. Rarely to the tracks stray away from the originals but this feels one of the most different. “Lionsong” in contrast is one of the closer renditions. The way Bjork’s voice wraps itself around the strings is beautiful. However it immediately showcases the strength and inherent weakness of the album – it’s scale. Taking a more orchestral arrangement to each track would have seen a more daring arrangement and structure and make the track feel grand. Bjork arranged and plays most of the album on an instrument called the Viola Organista. The instrument uses a friction belt to vibrate individual strings (similar to a Violin), with the strings selected by pressing keys on the keyboard (similar to an organ). It’s a wonderful instrument, designed by Leonardo Di Vinci, but whilst it’s marvel, it also makes the arrangement feel thin. There’s no sweeping grandeur as it’s like a glossy life like MIDI transcript.
The ten minute “Black Lake” which was the original centrepiece comes early this time and is still equally as heartbreaking as before. “Atom Dance” however is perfectly charming. It’s pizzicato string opening makes it regal, dainty and punchy at the same time and changes the dynamic of the track. It’s possibly the only track that I think is genuinely better in this format than its previous one. “Stonemilker” is beautiful too and feels decidedly more relaxed and serene without any wading percussion. It allows the lullaby to breathe and sway to its natural rhythm. “Quicksand” is possibly the most different overall since the original track was a tinny percussive smash up. The arrangement feels flippity and snake like as it flicks between octaves between note changes. It certainly feels a bit more melodic than the original but also quite artistic.
“Notget” is just as dramatic as its original but in one of the few ways the Viola Organista compliments the arrangements is that has gives a slight organ tinge to everything it touches and here with the dramatic low note booms, it fills the track out completely and really gives it oomph. That leads us to the huge rearrangement of the album – “Family”. The original eight minute track is now an instrumental piece. It draws out singular chords for epic time periods and feels more at home on the Drawing Restraint 9 soundtrack she made. It’s a mood piece and terribly melancholy as slowly the track becomes more organ than string and instead of feeling comforted in the noise and hues, it feels more like a funeral march as it bleeds into a hidden track which is a rendition of Black Lake with only the Viola Organista. The two tracks do feel a bit like one though and it took me a few listens to notice they were separate things.
Ultimately I do not think Vulnicura Strings is the definitive version of the album. It feels a decluttering and sweeping out of some interesting percussive pieces to focus on melody and form whilst showcasing a new instrument. For that, it does indeed work well and should be viewed as a companion to the original. Should Bjork want to do more string arrangements in the future, I hope she asks them to be arranged in a more daring way as she has done before and not straight copied across. That can be the difference between great and masterpiece.