You need to listen to: Björk's Vulnicura
Where you can find it: Vulnicura is available for digital download and on CD. It is not available to stream for free.
What is it: Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk's ninth studio album was inspired by her break-up with her partner of many years. Vulnicura is an album about loss, despair, and grief that's as heartbreaking as it is beautiful.
Why you should listen: For 30 years, Björk's identity has been defined by her wild outfits, her ability to predict music technology, and her recognizable Icelandic accent. At their most revealing, her albums, notably Post and her debut Björk, opened a tiny sliver of her world to listeners. But on other albums, the singer-songwriter became lost behind her quirky persona. Vulnicura, Björk's ninth studio album, is a departure. It's the most intimate, honest album she's ever produced. There's no more hiding here.
The artist who once sang "If you complain once more/ you'll meet an army of me" on "Army of Me" (from Post) now begs for understanding and mutual respect on "Stonemilker," Vulnicura's lead track. She sings "Show me emotional respect/ I have emotional needs/ I wish to synchronize our feelings." The cocky bravado that made Björk a whirlwind of power has dissipated into a typhoon of heartbreak.
Of all the albums in Björk's discography, Vulnicura is probably closest to 2001's Vespertine, another album about love and loss. Vespertine had the same swelling symphonies, the same careful microbeats, the same inverted synthtones and analog keyboards. It, too, felt like swirling layers of sound coming together in a single instance to create individual songs. But where Vespertine struggled to rise above that sound, Vulnicura thrives.
Björk was largely inspired to write Vulnicura by her break-up with artist Matthew Barney, the father of her 12-year-old daughter. Unlike many of the best break-up albums, Vulnicura isn't about two people arguing and falling apart. It's about weathering the storm all on one's own. The album is best listened to in its entirety, a rarity in this age of singles and digital music. It tells a story of emotional upheaval and the desperate search for stability in its nine songs. It's just under one hour, but it carries the weight of months of anguish.
As beautiful as Vulnicura is in full, it's equally mesmerizing in its small moments, particularly in its lyrics. The liner notes for the album place each song on the continuum of her break-up. The first song is "9 Months Before"; the next is "5 months before."
The enormous, 10-minute long "Black Lake" sits at the center of the album, or "3 months after." The song begins with a single lonely string instrument playing a swelling melody until it is joined by Björk's wispy, trilling voice singing, "My soul torn apart/ my spirit is broken/ into the fabric of all/ he is woven." Between verses, the music fades to silence, blackness, darkness, only to be rejoined by some new thrumming or electronic layering; the noise jars just enough to keep each section uncomfortable, restless. The song fades out with the initial lonely strings leaving only the sound of grief.
The despair in "Black Lake" and the two songs that follow it, "Family" and "Notget," is aided by the work of Björk's co-producer Acra, whose beats sonically stab with the same weight as Björk singing "Is there a place/ where I can pay my respects/ for the death of my family." It's a difficult album to listen to, but Vulnicura is not an album without hope. The last third of the album keeps the plucking strings and electronic rhythms but it substitutes disparity for growth.
The album ends with "Quicksand," a song that starts with a tornado of thrumming sounds and micro-beats that is unrelenting in its power, toward the future where, "when she’s broken she is whole and when she’s whole she’s broken."
Björk told Pitchfork that she doesn't know how she'll perform Vulnicura live, because the weight of the album could drag her under its spell. But that's the brilliance of this album. It envelops listeners with its disparity, its difficulty, and its beauty. If that's a spell, it's one I'm happy to be under.
You'll know if you're in or out by ... the end of "Lionsong," the second track. Björk's music can be uncomfortable to listen to for the unaccustomed listener, because it doesn't always follow standard chord progressions. So give this one some time. If you're not hooked by the end of the second song, you won't enjoy the rest of the album.