Björk has broken down crying a couple times while giving interviews about her new album, Vulnicura. “I can’t talk about it,” she said of the record’s lyrics to Pitchfork’s Jessica Hopper. “It’s not that I don’t want to, I’m not trying to be difficult. It really is all in there.”
After a few close listens to Vulnicura, it's easy to understand, for once, where the famously inscrutable 49-year-old Icelandic songwriter is coming from. You might even have teared up a few times yourself. There’s no mystery to the album, no lyrical code to be cracked, no iPad apps or visual aids or elaborate backstories needed to understand its meaning. Vulnicura speaks for itself, and it does so devastatingly.
The context, if you want it, is that Björk recently separated from her longtime romantic partner, the artist Matthew Barney, with whom she has a 12-year-old daughter. She then "documented this in pretty much accurate emotional chronology," as she wrote on Facebook shortly after the album was rushed to iTunes in response to a leak. "Like 3 songs before a break up and three after.” In addition to working with the buzzed-about electronic producers Arca and Haxan Cloak, for the first time since 2001’s Vespertine, she assembled her own live string arrangements.
It’s a gift that she did. Björk's always been an experimenter, but in the 21st century her instrumentation has gotten ever-more-conceptual, from the digitized a capella of Medulla to the multimedia science experiment of 2011's Biophilia. With the first moments of Vulnicura opener “Stonemilker,” though, she offers the more traditional and straightforwardly moving sound of a cello, soon joined by other classical instruments. The entire album makes use of the elemental, physically affecting power of strings, whether they arc majestic and sad on “Lion Song” or in tense, nerve-jangling drones on “Black Lake.” Beauty is not hard to find on Vulnicura.
That's not to say the experimentation is gone. Some of these tracks are knottier and more alien than most else in her catalog, which is saying something. The electronic textures often seem almost violent, as on “Family,” which opens with bass blasts like depth charges followed by scraping noises and a high, copy-machine whine. The 10-minute nightmare of “Black Lake” marks its halfway point with a detour into industrial club music, and parts of “Mouth Mantra” sound ported straight from Aphex Twin’s queasy I Care Because You Do album. Strangest of all is Bjork herself; as always, she pronounces words like no one has pronounced them before, inexplicably trilling her R’s and elongating syllables and only rarely ever serving up something resembling a pop melody.
But there’s added purpose to her unique delivery this time, because what she’s singing about is so personal. This isn’t merely a breakup album with Björkian sonics; it’s a singular story about a singular breakup, even accompanied by a timeline in the liner notes (from “9 months before” to “11 months after”). Whatever drove her and Barney apart, it seems to have manifested in a gap in affections, with her becoming a “Stonemilker” trying to draw emotion from someone whose heart has “coagulated.” The desperation on the early tracks is all-encompassing, produced less by heartbreak than by maddening ambiguity. “Should I throw oil on one of his moods?” she wonders on “Lion Song.” “But which one? Make the joy peak? Humor peak? Frustration peak? Anything peak—for clarity.”
The songs about the period immediately after the breakup are almost sickening in their despair. It’s here that the Arca-assisted beats abrade like shrapnel, that the strings jab as if in a horror film. “Family” opens with a question—“Is there a place where I can pay my respects to the death of my family?”—where the answer is self-evident and chilling: no. It goes without saying that to end the relationship with the father of your child is a difficult experience, but Vulnicura is meticulous in telling of just how difficult it is.
The last third of the album promises hope and healing, but it’s not the pat, empowering resolution that so much of popular culture provides for hardship narratives. Over a 5/4 toddle on “Atom Dance,” Björk calls out to the universe to validate her breakup experience as, well, universal; when the rhythm drops out halfway through and the chopped-up vocals of Antony Hegarty reply to her, it’s more freaky than comforting. “Mouth Mantra” depicts the process of turning pain into art as a gory struggle in itself, and on the twitchy dance landscape of “Quicksand” she rejects the narrative of total recovery altogether: “When I'm broken I am whole, and when I'm whole I'm broken.” It’s a fitting sentiment after so much beauty and ugliness, one last bit of truth on an album spoiled for it.