Vulnicura ★★★★☆

The Guardian, 22 janvier 2015

Björk : Vulnicura review – a sucker punch of a breakup album

Seven tracks into Vulnicura comes a song called Atom Dance. It is the moment when the mood of Björk’s ninth solo album finally shifts a little, from black despair to something close to battered optimism. It’s a kind of avant-garde I Will Survive. The lyrics aren’t the best on Vulnicura – after almost 40 minutes of starkly drawn emotional turmoil, there’s something jarring about her breaking out the kooky physics metaphors and inspirational poster-type slogans about dancing through the pain and learning by love to open up. But it does contain what may be the album’s most telling line : “I am fine-tuning my soul,” sings Björk, “to the universal wavelength.”

That could be a description of Vulnicura itself. The album details her separation from artist Matthew Barney so unflinchingly that the first six songs are subtitled with a sort of date-stamp : Five Months Before, Two Months After. Considering Björk’s recent career, there is something remarkably prosaic about her releasing a breakup album in the grand pop tradition of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear and Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, even one with a title that sounds like a cream you put on verrucas and a cover photo featuring the singer with what looks like a cross between a gaping wound and a vagina in the middle of her chest. It is, after all, the follow-up to Biophilia, an album in the grand pop tradition of songs about plate tectonics and human biorhythms. If you wanted evidence that Björk’s work had become even more rarefied since her mid-90s commercial heyday, then there it was, in the form of a series of iPad apps narrated by David Attenborough. A breakup album might seem straightforward by comparison, but it requires certain special skills. You must not only bare your soul, you also have to make your most personal experiences speak to the wider world, or risk self-indulgence. You need, as Atom Dance puts it, to be on the universal wavelength – not a place Björk’s recent work has spent much time.

As it turns out, only one moment feels too abstruse to touch the listener. With no discernable tune, and atonal strings alternately scraping and swarming around her voice, Family is so lost in its own personal misery that it is tough to connect with – although perhaps that’s the point : it represents that album’s emotional nadir, after which things start to look up a little. (Perhaps it says something about the tone of Vulnicura that the light relief comes in the form of a guest appearance from pop’s King of the Carefree ROFLs, Antony Hegarty.) Besides, the rest of the album doesn’t so much connect with you as rain one emotional sucker punch after another. There’s a horrible familiarity about History of Touches’ depiction of a final attempt at sex in the dying days of a relationship and Lionsong’s agonising depiction of icy passive-aggressive silence. “Should I throw oil on one of his moods ? / But which one ?” ponders the latter. “Make the joy peak / Humour peak / Frustration peak / Anything peak for clarity.” They make you feel the queasy tang of recognition.

Vulnicura’s other great strength is that Björk clearly doesn’t see the need for emotional directness as a reason to abandon her more adventurous musical ideas. The presence of FKA twigs producer and death-obsessed experimental electronic auteur the Haxan Cloak might alert you to the fact that she hasn’t reached for her acoustic guitar in search of sincerity. Instead, the album sets out its musical stall on opener Stonemilker : high-drama string arrangements over the boom and crack of electronic beats. The chorus is a kind of gorgeous sigh, with beautiful melodies frequently sitting alongside moments of real audacity. Black Lake stretches more than 10 minutes, partly because it keeps flatlining into a single, dead-eyed note. At certain moments the note lasts for 30 seconds. That doesn’t seem long on paper, but it feels like an eternity coming out of the speakers. In fact, the most striking thing about the music on Vulnicura is how well it supports the lyrics. Björk’s recent albums have occasionally been marred by a surfeit of ideas that overwhelmed the actual songs : the willful clutter on parts of Volta ; the sense that the accompanying essays and apps were distracting from, rather than bolstering, the music on Biophilia. By contrast, the sound of Vulnicura feels perfectly entwined with the songs. On History of Touches, a nostalgic litany of old intimacies is backed by a series of weirdly muted electronic explosions ; Mouth Mantra, a song about escaping the numbness of a relationship’s end and finding your voice again sounds like a sudden gushing of pent-up sounds, exploding from a waltz into sonic chaos.

The album ends with Quicksand, a song on which a relatively positive, life-must-go-on sentiment – “Hackle this darkness / Up to the light … When we’re broken we are whole” – feels undermined by its nervous rhythm. It sounds like a breakbeat with some essential workings missing : it moves forward, but refuses to swing in the way it should. This is a fitting conclusion to an album that begins, on Stonemilker, with Björk’s frank admission : “I better document this.” You could say there’s something gimlet-eyed about a woman who realises her relationship is collapsing and automatically thinks : still, great material. But it’s nothing if not honest. And besides, on the evidence of Vulnicura, she has a point.

par Alexis Petridis publié dans The Guardian