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FEATURE REVIEW: Björk: Vulnicura

Much has already been said about Björk’s new album, Vulnicura. For example, the first half of the title seems to be from the Latin word “vulnific,” meaning to cause injury. The second half seems to be from the Middle English word “cura,” meaning to care or cure. And, no, I’m not extremely smart like that. I read it in another review somewhere. Where, I couldn’t tell you. I’ve read at least fifteen reviews of this album. To that end, most reviews try to tell you exactly what Björk was feeling during each period chronicled on the album; some songs are about the time prior to her devastating break up with avant-garde filmmaker Matthew Barney while others are about the time following the break up. But that’s not all this review is going to be about. I’ll do some analyzing, sure, but I’m also going to give you my impression of the album and my reaction to it as well. My regular readers will know that I go back and forth between writing very professional reviews and looser, almost blog-style reviews. This is will split the difference between them.Before I get into how emotive the album is, there’s something nobody’s telling you that I’m going to come right out and say: there are no hooks on this album. If you found Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel to be dull, well, this album is so devoid of hooks that there aren’t even any choruses, something none of the reviews I’ve read have mentioned. So, if you thought Biophilia was too avant-garde with its songs that were more like science and nature lessons than anything catchy, well, you’ll probably struggle even harder here. Then again, the biggest problem I have with Biophilia is that the songs don’t feel emotional enough. They’re too technical, too scientific. (I don’t care about crystals. I care about Björk’s feelings.) In that respect, Vulnicura is the antithesis of Biophilia, being that all it does is reveal Björk’s feelings. Songs 7, 8 and 9 here aren’t specifically about the break up, but you still feel like there’s some humanity there. And songs 1 – 6 are as emotive as any songs could ever possibly hope to be. In fact, they read like Björk’s private journal entries. I suspect that some of the lyrics were even directly taken from her journals (assuming she keeps them).The album opens with “Stonemilker,” which takes place “nine months before” the breakup, as she comes right out and tells you what period she’s written about with each track pertaining to the relationship and its sour end. I fell in love with this song from the moment it opened. I loved the mix of strings and electronica on Homogenic. In fact, it’s my favorite of her albums. (My second favorite is Volta, which will probably make some people shriek but I don’t care.) So, the fact that she was finally doing something in that vein again made me rejoice. “Stonemilker” is very much like Homogenic’s “All is Full of Love” and “Joga.” And, you know what? I really didn’t mind that there wasn’t a chorus here. For its six minutes and forty nine seconds, it had me feeling like I was on a magical mystery ride. It’s truly a voyage, right down into Björk’s heart and soul. “Moments of clarity are so clear / I better document this,” she sings at the beginning and she proceeds to document feelings of emotional disconnect from her lover. Simply put, they were no longer on the same page. And who can’t relate to that? Especially if you’re the one who’s been rejected. Often, you can see it coming. Maybe the other person doesn’t laugh at one of your jokes one night when they usually do, giving you a frown instead. Maybe they stop making eye contact at dinner. You tell yourself it’s nothing, that you’re being paranoid. But usually you aren’t. Not unless you have anxiety issues. Which I have, so perhaps that’s why I’ve been sensitive to these little things when I’ve been dumped in the past. Of course, at the time I was detecting them I was in denial, telling myself they meant nothing, but in retrospect I felt like smacking myself in the head for not have realized what was happening when it was happening. Then again, when your feelings are as intense as Björk’s, you’d still stay with the person up until they actually break up with you. You’re powerless to cut the cord. They might as well own you. You’re so invested you don’t even know where you begin and the relationship ends. Well, not until it’s actually over. Even then, it’s all very blurry for quite some time.

1421786698_bjork-vul-cover“Lionsong” follows and finds Björk playing a game of “he loves me, he loves me not.” “Maybe he will come out of this / Maybe he won’t,” she sings. This is followed by, “Somehow I’m not too bothered / Either way.” I guess that’s denial for you. I mean, “Stonemilker” has already established that she does bother and very much so. And the fact that this is a break up album tells you she cared because she wouldn’t have written an album about it if she didn’t. But “she loves me, she loves me not” is a game most of us play. We might not realize we’re playing it, but it’s the sort of pattern that our minds go through when we’re still holding onto hope and meanwhile lying to ourselves, thinking we’ll be all right if our significant other breaks it off when, obviously, we won’t. We’re in too deep. But revisiting that state of mind in a song is somehow refreshing, perhaps because it’s comforting on some level to know Björk goes through this, too.Next, “History of Touches” is about “3 months before.” “Every single fuck / We had together / Is in a wondrous time lapse,” she sings, asking herself if this is going to be the last time they ever have sex, trying to hold onto every single second. Something else we can all relate to. Especially if you’ve been in situations that make you relate to the first two songs here. Seriously though, if you’ve ever been dumped you can probably recall that awkward moment when you were suddenly hit with the realization that you may be having sex with your partner for the last time because they are going to leave you. So, you try so very hard to remember every little moment because you don’t ever want to forget what they felt like.

The 10 minute “Black Lake” takes place “2 months after.” “My soul torn apart / My spirit is broken,” she sings with an ache in her voice. Like a mother who’s just discovered that her baby has died. It takes place in that dark, unthinkable place. “Family was always our sacred mutual mission / Which you abandoned.” You’re life is ruined. You no longer see the world the same way. What’s the point in living then? Fortunately, Björk does not get suicidal. “I am a glowing shiny rocket / returning home,” she sings as the song nears its end. Apparently, there remains a glimmer of hope. I can relate to the darkness of this song. It’s so hard to move on after a relationship with someone you were deeply in love with. You think such depressing and angry thoughts. You feel like you’re sinking deeper into quicksand with every single thought you have. You know you’re becoming your own worst enemy, but you can’t fucking help it. Eventually, hopefully, you gradually climb out of it. But it’s hard. You thought you held the world in your hands, that your heart was safe and cared for. And then all of that vanishes.

“Family” takes place “6 months after,” but Björk is hardly in a better place. Musically, the song has loud, almost brutal beats that will leave you feeling kicked in the chest. Like your heart has stopped and they’re electrocuting you with the paddles. Meanwhile, Björk wonders aloud, “Is there a place / Where I can pay my respects / For the death of my family.” As the song goes on, she lays down flowers, lights incense. It’s very ceremonious. It’s like being at your best friend’s funeral. “How will I sing us out of this sorrow?” she asks. At least by this point she’s realized that she needs to put the relationship to rest. It’s a difficult point to reach and many of us live in denial for years before we reach that point. But Björk is strong and she reaches it sooner, albeit six months after the relationship has already ended.

The final song of the break up part of the album is “Notget.” “If I regret us / I’m denying my soul to grow,” she sings. “I will not forget / This notget.” The mix of the strings and the beats here very much remind me of “Hunter,” which is my favorite Björk song of all-time. This song isn’t quite of that caliber but it easily could’ve been if there was a proper chorus. But that’s the thing about this album: you’re likely to think “if only this…” while you listen to it. This is so beautiful, it just needs a little hook, if she’d only repeated some of the lyrics a few times, turning them into a chorus. And, hey, she could have done that. But she didn’t. She chose to make the album she felt she had to make. And in all likelihood she did have to make it; making it was likely a major catharsis for her. Making it is what saved her life. And she probably couldn’t write choruses at the time she was making it. The heart wants what the heart wants and her heart wanted something that reflected it. That turned out to be something rather experimental, definitely avant-garde. Most people won’t find it accessible. I think the only way to do so is to pay close attention to the lyrics and allow yourself to feel something. Trying to relate to her words is what makes the album become accessible for most of the people who are enjoying it. If you don’t allow your heart to feel anything, if you don’t fully invest yourself, it’s just background music, something to play in an elevator. Actually, no, it’s definitely not elevator music. It’s wonderful music. But if you really want to experience it, to get into it, try to feel what she’s feeling. Maybe you can’t entirely relate to each lyric, but there are sure to be moments you can appreciate. Unless you’re some gorgeous motherfucker who’s never been dumped. Kid Ego won’t understand this record at all. Don’t be Kid Ego.

As for the album’s other three songs, they’re all good in their own ways, and maybe it’s good to have some lighter songs at that point. She’s made you feel your once broken heart all over again, so the least she can do is entertain you for a bit before you go. And she does. “Atom Dance” featuring Antony features very uplifting music and Björk’s vocals are lively, too. “Mouth Mantra” is another track where the mix of electronic sounds and boisterous strings works perfectly. And “Quicksand” is a short and sweet number that thumps away at full speed and packs some mean bass. The final two tracks in particular very much have that Homogenic vibe, so, of course, I’m in love with them. But no more or less than the rest of the album.Maybe you weren’t in love with Björk’s last couple of albums. But the Björk you loved is alive and well — obviously, she survived everything and made this album — and if you don’t mind songs that break the rules then you’re sure to cherish her here if you can commit to fully experiencing this album. In other words, listen with your heart.

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Paris365

An entertainment journalist for 20 years, Michael McCarthy was a columnist and contributing editor for the magazines Lollipop and LiveWire. He co-created and wrote for Cinezine, one of the '90's most popular movie E-zines. The only time he's not listening to music is when he's watching television shows and movies or reading, usually music magazines.

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