Björk – Vulnicura first-listen review : the inky, jet-black flipside to Vespertine

The Guardian, 21 janvier 2015

Björk’s new album – a surprise iTunes release on Tuesday – makes no concessions to pop immediacy, and is all the better for it

In many ways Björk’s ninth studio album Vulnicura – released on iTunes last night after it leaked over the weekend, a full two months ahead of schedule – can be read as the companion piece to 2001’s Vespertine. Written and recorded in the first flushes of new love, Vespertine’s honest, sensual and breathless lyricism is mirrored by a similar candour on Vulnicura. This time the dewy, sleepy-eyed lovemaking delicately described in the former’s Cocoon has been replaced by the latter’s History of Touches, in which “fucks” are now stored as memories and nothing more. Billed by Björk herself as “a complete heartbreak album”, for the most part Vulnicura is the inky, jet-black flipside to Vespertine’s new hope, detailing the slow decay of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney.

Co-produced by experimental Venezuelan beatmaker Arca and the Haxan Cloak, the album’s plotted like a sort of twisted version of Bridget Jones’s Diary. So the string-drenched, Homogenicesque opener Stonemilker, we’re told in the liner notes, is about the period nine months before the breakup, its lyrics seemingly showing a person in denial as the wheels slowly fall off. One song and four months later on Lionsong we’re headed further into the abyss, with a creepily filtered Björk singing “maybe he will come out of this loving me, maybe he won’t” as opulent strings seem to mock her misguided optimism. Four songs in and we’re post-break up, the slowly evolving, cavernously emotional highlight Black Lake flitting between strings that sound like they’re dying and big, heartbeatesque beats. In amongst it all Björk shifts from victim (“Did I love you too much, devotion bent me broken”), to wounded mother (“Family was always our sacred mutual mission, which you abandoned”), to the song’s final third in which she finds defiance : “I am a glowing shiny rocket returning home, as I enter the atmosphere I burn off layer by layer.”

It’s a breathtaking opening, rich with sonic and lyrical detail, Arca’s twitching beats complementing and coalescing with the dramatic string arrangements. As the timescale moves into post-breakup anger, however, the songs become harder to digest. Family opens with the line “Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family ?” and doesn’t get much cheerier, while Notget – all metallic marching beats and experimental time signatures – is as awkward as the title suggests. It does however seem to offer catharsis in the terrifying growl of the last line “Love will keep us safe from death”, with the following Atom Dance – the first song with no time stamp – almost jaunty by comparison, Björk’s soaring vocals skipping around those of regular collaborator Antony Hegarty.

For the final three songs the album feels less inward-looking, like the light at the end of a very long, constantly twisting tunnel. The clues to this thematic duality, as ever with a Björk album, lie in the artwork. Wide-eyed and naïve on the cover of Debut, heroic and warrior-like on Homogenic and a mother earth figure on 2011’s disappointing Biophilia, here Björk is trussed up in black, hands open wide, her chest carved open (“Who is open chested ?” she asks on Stonemilker). The character represents the emotional bloodletting of the album’s first two-thirds, but is mirrored later on by an image of Björk clamping her hands over her chest wound, defiantly owning, even protecting, the emotional turmoil (“If I regret us I’m denying my soul to grow, don’t remove my pain it is my chance to heal,” she sings on Notget).

Every Björk album comes with initial rumours of a return to the pop immediacy of Debut and Post, and with both Volta and Biophilia it felt like there had been genuine attempts to do just that. Vulnicura – a made-up word that seems to be a strange portmanteau of vulnerable and cure – makes no such concessions and is all the better for it. In switching the focus back to herself after the global concerns of her last two albums, Björk’s created a wounded, raw and, most importantly, human album and one that feels like her most vital since 2001.

par Michael Cragg publié dans The Guardian