After the accompanying multimedia storm nearly buried the true beauty present across much of 2011’s ‘Biophilia’, it was perhaps fitting that a leak ensured that the music got to do all of the talking when it came to the arrival of ‘Vulnicura’. It is, of course, monumentally shitty when the rug gets pulled from under a release and it still bugs me when my favourite artists fall prey to such early leaks. However, in a deft bit of damage control, a not especially high-fidelity upload was quickly usurped by the real thing and we were able to get to grips with what had already been revealed to be a brutally personal record.
I can still remember putting on the headphones in the back room one cold night in January, wondering what I was about to hear. The strings at the start of ‘Stonemilker’ cut straight through, prompting the cliched but no less striking hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck response. It is utterly desolate. The arrangement aches and groans, full of foreboding and fatigue. The tone is set in quite remarkable fashion and it never relents. The lyrics unflinchingly document the end of Björk’s long term relationship with artist Matthew Barney like a diary, each of the first six tracks accompanied by their position in a chronological timeline when perusing the lyrics. By ‘Lionsong’, it’s five months before it happens and uncertainty is the theme. “Maybe he will come out of this loving me, maybe he won’t,” she sings, high up in the mix while beats and strings pile in behind. The twitching rhythm seems entirely fitting and it cements ‘Vulnicura’ as an album where its context plays a vital part.
The switch from the sense of imminent loss in ‘History Of Touches’ – “every single fuck we had together is in a wondrous time lapse” – with its unsettling synth stabs to the stunningly stark intensity of ‘Black Lake’ is breathtaking. The album’s ten-minute centrepiece, it has plenty to live up to after the opening line of “our love was my womb but our bond has broken.” Not that it proves a struggle, musically at least. Almost three minutes pass before some detached beats briefly skitter across the landscape, prompting a moment of pause. The disarmingly emotive lyrics are delivered almost syllable by syllable, as if to reinforce the sense of a seismic separation. It feels like the shortest ten minute song in the history of recorded music, so enthralling is the story at its heart.
The shuddering beat that presages the stark lyrics of ‘Family’ – “is there a place where I can pay respect for the death of my family?” – is a masterstroke but it makes for staggeringly claustrophobic listening. Thinking back to that January night, I had to put the headphones down for a minute at that point and wander off to the kitchen for a breather. Even now, it still requires an emotional run up.
‘Notget’, now eleven months after the split, marks the beginning of renewal which informs the gradual ascent to the album’s closer, ‘Quicksand’. The former takes control of the grief, exclaiming “don’t remove my pain, it is my chance to heal,” while the latter argues that “when we are broken, we are whole and when we’re whole, we’re broken.” It’s not quite an emotional release, not least because it’s hard to resist the temptation to dive back into the power of these nine songs again, but it offers light after plenty of shade. Whatever your view of Björk prior to this release, ‘Vulnicura’ stands as a work of art all of its own. From the packaging inwards, it is something truly special.
It’s also worth seeking out the newly released ‘Vulnicura Strings‘, which pares things back and restructures some of the tracks to stirring effect. There’s also a live album from the abbreviated tour, but it was, initially at least, limited to Rough Trade shops.