Vulnicura leaked in January, two months ahead of the scheduled release, prompting the Icelandic singer to release the album early via iTunes, saving the physical release for the original release date, 16th March.
As I’m sure everyone will by now be aware, Björk’s ninth studio album is openly personal and devastating, exploring the tender subject of her breakup with long term partner, and father of her child, Matthew Barney. As such, it is truly heartbreaking – and I don’t use the term lightly. I still can’t listen to it without a lump in my throat, and the first time I heard it I was reduced to a gibbering wreck on my bedroom floor.
Throughout the album you can hear the sadness catch in her throat, but despite this (or perhaps because of it), her voice comes through more powerfully than ever. Opening track Stonemilker overlays these vocals on top of a melancholy string section, and they flow gorgeously in and out of one another. For Vulnicura, Björk enlisted the talents of Venezuelan producer Arca to work closely with her on the production of the album. Together they have produced a sound which is easily recognisable as being Björk, with all of her idiosyncrasies – but which she has admitted she wouldn’t have been able to create without his technical skill and the freshness he brought to the proceedings.
This latest offering – and it really is an offering up to us of her innermost soul – is perhaps most similar in sound to Homogenic (the strings on 10-minute epic Black Lake are particularly reminiscent of Joga), but much more raw. It’s certainly a departure from previous album, 2011’s Biophilia, which for some Björk fans strayed a little too far into the experimental and became almost unlistenable (although personally I loved it). Vulnicura is an album full of ballads, but brings in enough of the unique production and musical genius of Björk to render it a beautiful and truly moving masterpiece without having to rely on cliché. The subject matter has of course been the subject of many an album over the years, but lyrics which might be in danger of seeming trite coming from anyone else, such as Notget’s ‘our love kept me safe from death’, sound honest and terrible coming from Björk.
Whilst being more accessible than Biophilia in some ways, it is difficult to listen to for different reasons. It is melodically simpler – even softer – but it hurts. With lyrics like ‘maybe he will come out of this loving me/ Maybe he won’t’ (on Lionsong), it’s not an album for the faint hearted – and be warned, if you’ve recently been dumped, you will be in a state by the time you reach final song Quicksand.
Seventh track Atom Dance, featuring the vocals of long time collaborator Antony Hegarty (credited familiarly as just ‘Antony’ on the album’s tracklisting), is less of a ballad, signalling the shift in the latter half of the album back towards a Björk we might have more expected from the follow up to Biophilia.
The artwork of the physical release is very different to that which accompanied the digital release, which was more indicative of the live show aesthetic. It depicts a molten Björk bent backwards with her heart physically ripped out, and is intensely uncomfortable to look at. But uncomfortable is about right, as it sums up what Vulnicura feels like to listen to. It’s wonderful but horrible, and there’s no mistaking it for background music as it physically commands your full attention and emotional involvement.