If you’ve had your heart broken in the past month or so, at least you’ve had some fresh tunes to add to your “True Love Is a Cruel Illusion” iTunes playlist. In December, Nicki Minaj gifted us with her great, emotionally candid Pinkprint, and now Icelandic higher power Björk has released Vulnicura, which she herself describes as “a complete heartbreak album.” We were actually not supposed to hear Vulnicura so soon. A week ago, in a handwritten note (please tell me someone is working on a font called “Björk’s Handwriting”), she claimed the album would be out in March, but yesterday she decided to do something that we are really going to have to stop calling “pulling a Beyoncé” and surprise-released it early. Why the rush? The answer might be revealed in time, or maybe it won’t. As the world has known since the iconic Swan Dress, there is no why with Björk. There is only do.
I know I am not alone in saying that, while I have found intermittent moments of brilliance over her past three records, I don’t think Björk has made a statement of sustained greatness since 2001’s Vespertine. Beginning with her 2007 record Volta (a.k.a. the one with the “Kool-Aid Man on Acid” cover), her music has become increasingly formless and amelodic, often sacrificing the relatability and emotional directness of her best records. She took the head-in-the-clouds thing one step further on her last release, 2011’s album/iPad app Biophilia — a record she literally set in the cosmos (representative song titles: “Moon,” “Dark Matter,” “Cosmogony”). With a few exceptions (the single “Crystalline,” the chiming music-box “Virus”), Biophilia did not live up to its claims of grandeur. It felt a little lost.
Vulnicura, refreshingly, finds Björk coming back down to Earth — and often the comfort of solid ground crumbles beneath her feet. Co-produced by the Venezuelan-born shape-shifter Arca (who worked with Kanye West on Yeezus and recently released Xen, a mostly instrumental solo album full of weird, gurgling beauty), Vulnicura sounds like something caught in the agonizingly slow process of breaking apart; the tectonic plates of this music are constantly shifting, colliding, and fracturing into new, violently jagged shapes. There have been rumors over the past year that Björk split with her longtime partner, the artist Matthew Barney, and the emotional acuity of Vulnicura all but confirms it — you can’t fake this kind of funk. “How will I sing us out of this sorrow?” she asks on the almost-too-harrowing “Family.” “Build a safe bridge for the child, out of this danger.”
Vulnicura is a song cycle divided into three even parts: pre-heartbreak, post-heartbreak, and that hard-won moment when you finally stop defining yourself based on where you are on the heartbreak curve. “[H]opefully these songs could be a help,” Björk wrote in yesterday’s note announcing the release, “a crutch to others and prove how biological this process is : the wound and the healing of the wound […] it has a stubborn clock attached to it.” Right down to the album cover, which I can only describe as “Hellraiser meets Videodrome on a distressingly heavy-pollen day,” woundedness is Vulnicura’s key motif. In the booklet that comes along with the album, she pinpoints each song on the timeline of trauma: “Stonemilker” is “9 months before,” the brutal “Black Lake” is “2 months after.” There’s something stingingly precise about the clarity of these details. By now, we’re used to considering Björk to be some kind of distant, eccentric deity; it’s strange to think of her doing anything pedestrian. (A friend of mine once saw her at a party and reported back banal details with outsize awe: “Björk was eating from the cheese plate.”) But its simple, direct candidness makes Vulnicura feel — and this was not something I was quite expecting after the indulgence of Biophilia — startlingly, straightforwardly human.
Vulnicura is a challenging album, no doubt. But even on the first few listens, I find it to be the most gratifying thing Björk’s done in over a decade, and I imagine its deeper rewards will take time to unfurl. So far my favorite song is the opening track, “Stonemilker,” but I suspect that’s because it’s the most immediately lovable, its swelling strings and affecting melody making it sound like a forlorn sequel to Homogenic’s classic “Joga.” Vulnicura’s ten-minute centerpiece “Black Lake” is also stunning, brooding quietly and unhurriedly before soaring heart-first into an explosive crescendo. The next two songs, “Family” and “Notget,” drift a little too far into shapeless self-indulgence, but Vulnicura finds its footing again during the warped waltz “Atom Dance,” a duet with Antony. In the lyrics booklet, “Atom Dance” is also the first song listed only by its title, without an accompanying marker on the chronology of heartbreak. It is the soundtrack to finally moving on.
No one is happy that Björk had to suffer personal trauma to make her best record in years — but that’s the rub of all art, I suppose. In the process of getting her heart cracked open, she’s learned how to let the listener back in. That much is apparent during Vulnicura’s finale, the skittering “Quicksand,” a song that refuses to see a difference between being “broken” and “whole.” Like so much of Vulnicura, it brings to mind the lines of a poem by Mary Oliver: “I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.”