A Heart Broken and Dissected

The New York Times, 22 janvier 2015

The big news about Björk’s ninth studio album, “Vulnicura,” shouldn’t be the fact that she released it suddenly online, two months before its planned appearance, in response to having it leaked prematurely. It should be that in her latest songs, Björk leads as much with her heart as her brain.

“Biophilia,” the album-and-apps package she released in 2011, was a grandly cerebral edifice of cross-mapped concepts : music, science, pedagogy and technology, from the mechanical to the virtual. “Vulnicura” has intellectual parameters of its own. The songs conceal or completely disregard the signposts of pop, and they linger in dissonance and ambiguous tonality. Throughout the album, Björk uses a severely circumscribed palette : just string orchestra, electronics and voices. But it’s not the musical complexities that register most immediately : It’s the sorrow, anger and tenacity. The album cover shows her encased in shiny black with an open wound in her chest.

On Facebook, Björk called “Vulnicura” “a complete heartbreak album.” (It reflects her breakup with the artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney, with whom she had a daughter, Isadora, in 2002.) The lyrics booklet dates the first six songs chronologically, from “9 months before” to “11 months after.” The lyrics trace estrangement, bitter separation and resolve. They seesaw between the analytical — “Moments of clarity are so rare/I better document this,” in “Stonemilker” — and the raw : “My soul torn apart, my spirit is broken,” in “Black Lake.”

It’s an album of ballads, some of them extraordinarily slow, built around Björk’s declamatory melodies ; there are verses and choruses in there. But the music rarely supports her in any typical sense. “Stonemilker” and “Lionsong,” which open the album, are the closest thing to Björk’s previous recordings, using elegiac strings and twitchy electronics. From there, the tracks are more likely to envelop her, abandon her, destabilize her or battle her. “History of Touches,” a last-chance love song, uses only watery synthesizer chords with their own, separate pulse, like someone else’s breathing. They’re programmed by Björk’s co-producer for much of the album, Arca.

In the 10-minute “Black Lake,” the strings offer austerely distant counterpoint and, at times, long-sustained chords that conjure stretches of unbearable solitude ; march and dance beats heave up at times, then disappear. For the first three minutes of “Family,” as an increasingly agitated Björk asks, “Where do I go to make an offering/to mourn our miraculous triangle/father mother child,” her voice hovers over unpredictable thuds and an inexorably swelling cloud of dissonant strings and electronics, an almost unbearable tension. “There is a swarm of sound around our heads,” she sings later in the song. “Notget,” which insists “Don’t remove my pain, it is my chance to heal,” pushes against her voice with electronics that hint at Asian tunings and then with insistently jabbing strings.

“Atom Dance” has a science metaphor that could have come from “Biophilia” : “We are each other’s hemispheres,” Björk sings, joined in staggered counterpoint by Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. At first it’s almost decorous, repeating a five-note pizzicato figure ; then it’s buffeted by flurries of percussion and string trills. “Mouth Mantra,” in which Björk sings about being silenced, starts out waltzing but goes haywire with ghostly voices and dizzying electronic crossfire. And “Quicksand” concludes the album with the sentiment, “When we’re broken we are whole/And when we’re whole we’re broken.” It doesn’t provide any kind of resting point ; the strings circle through unresolved chords and the rhythm, hinting at breakbeats, jitters and races ahead.

Even amid the most abstruse music, these songs have an emotional immediacy. The physicality of Björk’s voice and the strings are even more striking against the impersonal electronic sounds, all the better to reveal the interior landscape of heartbreak and healing — not a simple story, and all the better for it.

par JON PARELES publié dans The New York Times