Björk's avant-garde album 'Vulnicura' impressive and strange

One Little Indian

By Amelia Zak, Daily Music Editor
Published January 25, 2015

There’s an episode of Friends where Ross reawakens a personal piano “sound” he acquired in college. He wants each song to be understood as a “wordless sound poem,” made complete by helicopter sounds, doorbells, jackhammer noises and dog barks. The rest of the “Friends” cast neglects to inform him of these floundering artistic attempts. When listening to Björk’s newest album, Vulnicura, I felt like Ross. Any attempt I would make at recreating the sounds of Vulnicura would be equally as awkward and ridiculous. I could never reproduce these sounds — I couldn’t even sing them in the shower — and I can barely apprehend the Icelandic depth or enjoyment that some could find in Vulnicura.

Vulnicura


No grade will be given
Björk
One Little Indian


The album floats around the marriage of three musical elements: Björk’s specific throaty and moaning voice, a recurring string section and the impossibly cool additions of revered electronic artists like Matthew Herbert and Haxan Cloak. In the past, Björk’s albums followed outlandish themes (her last revolved around her thoughts and opinions of the growing universe), but here Björk has never been more vulnerable. It’s as if she opened up her diary and began to sing its contents aloud. Her voice cries over every track, explaining her marriage’s decline and the disintegration of her once whole family. The album is a dam breaking that held back waters of Björk’s nervous depression.

Fogged by a high school obsession with Björk’s 1993 single, “Big Time Sensuality,” I imagined I was qualified enough to conquer the album.

I was deeply mistaken.

This type of experimental music surpasses other modern bands of the same genre, like St. Vincent and tUnE-yArDs, in its depth and ability to be understood by the everyday listener. Unqualified to properly review this kind of avant-garde art, I received the album as a fascinated third party. So here’s my song-by-song, minute-by-minute transcribed listening session of the album. If you have the album, or are skilled in the fine art of “finding free shit on the Internet,” jump in with me:

The album begins with “Stonemilker.” With a strong cello and string section beginning, I am surprised from the start. Her emotional, hiccuping voice enters in slowly, dragging you into a series of pleads to a lover she’s losing. “Show me emotional respect,” she whispers. Deep bass vibrations emerge and the speakers in my room start to shake. I imagine Björk shaking as much as my bedside table as she coughs the question “What is it that I have that makes me feel your pain?” Lying on the ground, listening along, I’m starting to become more and more aware of my emotional and musical shortcomings that do not permit my critical analysis of this album.

Next song, “Lionsong” — a personal favorite of mine. With absolutely no consistencies other than the string section that follows along, it feels like your buckled into a rollercoaster of Björk’s crippling heart. That sounds dramatic, but just go take a listen. “Maybe he will come out of this loving me?” — ouch.

“History of Touches” digs deeper into an electronic sound. A synthesized piano and heavy electronic base guides the song with each sound vibrating off her voice. The song drags itself out of the emotional and into the physical, recalling “every single fuck we had together in a wondrous time lapse.” At only three minutes long, this is possibly the most digestable song on the album.

“Black Lake” is a 10-minute adventure of the mind that made me wish I had cannabis on hand. The album is starting to become sonically repetitive: here’s another string-based song layered over by a string of electronic creations. With each new verse the song builds with pounds and rolls of strings. If you can’t survive the entire track, just try and make it to the song’s apex, lasting from the fourth to the fifth minute. From there until the completion of the song you are trudging through the emotional sludge of the Black Lake with Björk. Bring some weed, and good luck.

Following “Black Lake,” I went to “Family” looking for an emotional and musical respite. Instead I found another outlandish and dark creation with (surprise!) strings, electronics and Björk’s depictions of her newly created vat of human sadness that could easily be slipped into the film score of “Alien.” The largest distinction to be found in “Family” is Björk’s malleable vocals as it occupies an almost witch-like persona. Minute three arrived, a strong cello appears, and any ebb and flow I thought I had begun to understand disappears immediately.

“Notget” follows the theme of the album. More strings, more cries of sadness, more really cool electronics. “Our love could not keep us safe from death”, “Without love I feel the abyss and understand your fear of death” are some of the throaty proclamations. This repetition has my sympathies dissipating quickly.

A respite! Finally! “Atom Dance” is the waltz of this album. I was surprised (but with all this weird nothing really surprised me at this point) by this unique dance number; it is the closest the album comes to the happier songs — and apparently times — that Bjork once gave in ’90s albums like Post and Debut. It was here that I played “Big Time Sensuality” just to remind myself that Björk has known happier times. And maybe she’ll find happiness again soon? You poor woman. My poor confused roommates.

“Mouth Mantra” contains some of the most impressive electronic work on the album. At six minutes long I’m expecting to be bored by the repetition of sonic themes (strings, electronics, Björk’s vocals) but here I was pleasantly surprised.

It’s pretty late, and I’m pretty exhausted, but this song has me envisioning myself venturing through outer-space with Björk as she sings to me about sacrifice. This isn’t entirely unpleasant.

And finally, the light at the end of the deep dark tunnel of this album: “Quicksand” arrives with electronic spasms. Slow strings emerge once again, but at only two minutes long and with a change of topic — Björk’s words finally start describe a hope for rebirth — the song grips your ears until its finish. One of the album’s last lines says, “when she is broken she is whole and when she is whole she is broken.” This album would, and probably should, end in a confusing, insightful paradox.