Björk Vulnicura One Little Indian
Beneath the chimerical bombast; the molasses-thick orchestral constructions and the leftfield pop perfection; the unerring need to push forward, technologically, even illogically; the bottomless source of pop-cultural idiosyncrasy … beneath all that, there has always existed a core quality in Björk’s output, the thing which keeps listeners returning time and again, decade after decade. It’s her ability to capture snapshots of pure human intimacy. It’s there in the joyous overstatement of Big Time Sensuality (1993); the anatomical, almost voyeuristic vulnerability of Possibly Maybe (1995)’s closing lines: “since we broke up I’m using lipstick again / I’ll suck my tongue as a remembrance of you.” It’s steeped in the grand statement of Bachelorette (1997) – “I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl!” – and the sticky interior dialogue of Desired Constellation (2004). More than any lust for sonic experimentation, it’s this ability to make each emotion feel more real, more powerful, newer and fresher than ever before, which assures Björk’s continued appeal in 2015.
Vulnicura is Björk’s most pronounced, explicit statement of intimacy yet. Its carnal levels of microscopic detail, its open deconstruction of the personal, sexual, maternal disenfranchisement which tracks the evisceration of heartbreak, are what made its premature leaking so jarringly evasive. This is a distinctly female ownership of feeling, and in a climate of relentless clawing into personal effects, of making the acutely personal public, it was another glaring violation. Vulnicura should have been afforded the dignity of being shared on its own terms. But equally, there’s the very tangible sense that this was always to be shared, these feelings were intended to be made public. There’s a curious calculation at play.
By this, Björk’s ninth album, there’s a control, even an absence of spontaneity, in the way these memories, however painful, are used to inform the album’s themes; a mastery of how to turn feeling into art. A self-aware, narrator’s voice emerges early in opener Stonemilk – “Moments of clarity are so rare, I better document this.” It’s a mission statement of sorts. Accompanied by the liner notes’ chronological mapping of the songs’ relation to the break-up which inspired them (nine months before, eleven months after and so on), the conscious relation of ‘emotion=song’ is an intriguing oddity, an almost unparalleled hyper-specificity of feeling. It’s disarming to pinpoint heartbreak into such systematic formality, but it’s staggeringly effective.
Acquiring the bleeding-edge talents of Arca and The Haxan Cloak has, unexpectedly, heralded a return the late 90s/early 00s golden age, of Homogenic and Vespertine. The young pairing show admirable restraint and respect in enforcing their brand of future shock into the landscape, allowing Bjork’s flawless string arrangements to take precedence. Arca, in particular, take glee in the prospect of contributing to music that sounds like Björk, enforcing his whims in bursts: the brutalist construction and paranoid whiplash of the penultimate Mouth Mantra, the clumpy, synthetic jabbers and stout kick drum at the gut of the astounding 10-minute centrepiece Black Lake. It’s collaboration of the sweetest kind, one which allows the focal point to crackle and spark, and affords the freedom to express without reproach. Such is this sense of a personal, individual platform that the arrival of Antony Hegarty’s pining vocal – even on the comparatively breezy, autumnal pluck of Atom Dance – feels almost invasive, unwelcome.
Lyrically, the juxtaposition of world weary to almost childishly overwhelmed, the bathos of the impossibly grandiose to the minutiae of everyday existence, results in perhaps Björk’s most complete set of words ever. Lionsong revels in an unabashed naivety in the discovery of ever new emotions – “These abstract complex feelings / I just don’t know how to handle them”, and History of Touches draws on a physical, spatial sense of absence, phantom limbs brushing in the night – “Every single touch we ever touch each other / Every single fuck we had together / Is in a one trust time lapse with us here at this moment”. And most poignant of all is the maternal ache of Family, which ruminates explicitly on the devastating collapse of the supportive unit of parenthood: “There is the mother and the child / Then there is the father and the child / But no man and a woman / No triangle of love.”
That the portentous, shuffling closer Quicksand, co-written with the relatively unknown Spaces, provides a slightly unsatisfying ending is partly testament to the exceptional work of Arca in the body of the album; its attempts to merge glitchy intensity with one of the most optimistic melodies on the album jars, and not necessarily in the good way. But it barely matters. You’re not left feeling short-changed. It’s an imperfection on an otherwise near-perfect album, and the best in two decades from one of a handful of the greatest artists of their era. Vulnicura is a truly significant achievement.