Björk’s ninth studio album was released two months early on Tuesday after having been leaked online this weekend. The winner of a multitude of awards including four BRITs, a MOJO, and countless music video awards, our Icelandic heroine has had a long and rewarding career. Before going solo in 1993 she had dappled in plenty of genres, and after studying classical piano and flute at a music school in Reykjavík, Bjork appeared in many bands of diverse variety: punk, goth rock, trip-hop, and jazz fusion to name a few.
Vulnicura opens timidly, with the quiet, sustained strings of Stone Milker, and the shy, Icelandic accent of Björk telling us about the emotional respect (or lack of?) in her relationship with the artist, Matthew Barney. She asks “Who is open chested?” displayed in the album artwork – Björk clad in black Lycra and colourful spikes protruding from her neck and shoulders – with a fleshy rip in her chest that looks, whether intentional or not, suspiciously like female genitalia. Vivid. We then hear layers of voices upon the tentative, whispering R&B beats of co-producer, Arca (think production on some of Kanye’s Yeezus) on Lionsong. Björk seems to speculate in a moaning “Maybe he will come out of this loving me / Maybe he won’t”, which after four or five listens can get a bit grating. We then have the synth-y and surprisingly intimate History Of Touches, which has a melancholic quality describing the couple’s last night together. A lot shorter than the rest of the tracks on Vulnicura, it has a dreamlike, touching quality that prettily evokes the memories she reveals to us.
This record is full of heartfelt emotion as you would expect a post-break up album to be, as Björk herself calls it “a complete heartbreak album”. However, we sense a change of tone forty minutes in with Atom Dance. From regret and dejected lyrics on the first six songs, Atom Dance has a more positive outlook, accompanied by a combination of both pizzicato and stretched string notes. Björk strains to get her words out until four and a half minutes in, when we hear an almost unfitting change. Vocal melodies are twisted together in a way that is slightly reminiscent of James Blake, and the time signature is unrecognisable, which almost doesn’t fit with the rest of the song, until Björk’s haunting, soaring voice returns, with great backing percussion. It then dissipates into complex strings and voices intertwined that reduce to end the song.
The album ends with Mouth Mantra and Quicksand, teasing us with classical strings, hissing cymbals, and experimental drum samples that may be hard to concentrate on. Vulnicura then, is perhaps an incredibly precise piece of genius that crosses boundaries and redefines genres, or to the untrained ear, just a little messy.