Music inspired by a break-up is nothing new. Usually this music is just the result of the artist trying to express how they feel at a moment in time, that period of sadness directly following the end of a relationship; This is not true of Vulnicura. Instead of focusing on a single period, Bjork uses this album to chronologically document the entire break-up process.
Album opener, “Stonemilker”, takes place 9 months before the separation, when Bjork is beginning to notice the connection with her partner starting to close. As the album cover depicts, she is an “open-chested” individual who never hesitates to share her feelings and emotions. Her partner, on the other hand, has “coagulated”; getting him to share is like “milking a stone”, causing the relationship to fall out of balance.
The emotional core of this album is not the lyrics, however, but the strings. Plenty of modern music utilizes strings to embellish and adorn songs, but for Vulnicura, the strings form the very basis for the songs themselves. This is all too apparent on “Stonemilker”. The strings on this song are gorgeous and so emotionally expressive that her soulful vocals and lyrics only feel like a beautiful accompaniment to the strings. Even the minimal beats on the song melt and dissipate into the open spaces left by the strings; instead of carrying the rhythm they just follow the flow of the orchestrations.
Taking place 4 months later, “Lionsong” demonstrates the complex emotions of not knowing whether or not the relationship will recover or continue to crumble. “Maybe he will come out of this, maybe he won’t […] I’d just like to know”. Sometimes it’s much preferable to know that a relationship is going to end so that you can prepare yourself, rather than feeling like a helpless bystander watching your partner distance herself more and more.
Musically this song continues the trend of complex string arrangements, however the beats seem to take more precedence in the development of the song, which allows the strings to take a backseat at times. In typical Bjork fashion, these fluttering beats tend to stay interesting and evolve while simultaneously retaining the same rhythm. While the beats still feel inherently Bjork, Arca’s programming assistance is likely responsible for adding some more color into the mutating timbres. This song also features some interesting vocal processing that seems to add to the emotional complexity felt in the vocals.
Fittingly, the last song on Side A is also the last song to take place before the separation. “History of Touches” describes sex as the final crossroads that brings back floods of “wondrous”, intimate memories and simultaneously signifies the end of the relationship. This song stands out musically because it is the only song not to feature strings, as well as the only song where Arca handled all of the programming herself. There are no beats, however, only an electronic choir of shimmering synths and minimal sub bass that support Bjork’s vocals and leave them sounding as naked and vulnerable as her lyrics.
The songs on Side B take place in the months directly after the break-up; this is a universal period of pain and suffering that almost anyone can relate to. As a result, the songs here serve as the emotional catharsis of the entire album. They are both extremely long (10 and 8 minutes, respectively) and experience many emotional peaks and valleys. Bjork has stated that the only way she could deal with the pain was to write the strings, which makes it no surprise that the strings are the backbone of the songwriting.
This is all too obvious on “Black Lake”, where beautiful, flowing strings start off the song. Lyrics about her “suffering being” come in sounding mournful and broken, playing back and forth with the slow, swelling strings. After the first verse, the song fades into nothing but a minimal string drone that sounds like the bows are barely touching the strings. Another mournful verse comes in. This time her lyrics of “drowning in an ocean” are supported by a minimal beat consisting of nothing but a washed out bass drum bubbling underneath the surface. Again the verse fades into another string drone, this time the drone feeling slightly more full. This constant ebb and flow gives the impression of Bjork trying to move forward, but giving up whenever her strength seems to desert her. The third verse continues this slow development, adding more percussive elements into the beat as she sings about her soul being “torn apart” and her spirit being “broken”. After the fourth verse the kick drum starts to pulses louder and louder as more and more percussive elements are thrown into the mix. This time the vocals give way to a fully realized beat, with the string drone crescendoing beneath the surface. Once this crescendo reaches its peak, the vocals kick in, accompanied the fullest beat heard on the album so far. The verse-drone-verse-drone structure continues for the entire song, creating a juxtaposition between spareness and fullness as each verse seems to develop with stronger vocals and more enveloping beats. This continues until the final verse mimics Bjork’s lyrics of burning off “layer by layer”, and the instruments and vocals dissipate into one final, hopeless string drone.
While “Black Lake” is arguably the saddest song on the album, “Family” is definitely the darkest and most resentful. Dark ambient mastermind The Haxan Cloak makes his presence on this song known immediately with a booming, immersive bass drum. He used many similar sounds on his last album to mimic the feeling of death, which seems only too fitting for this song about mourning the “death of [a] family”. Accompanying these punishing bass drums are wavering string drones, uncomfortable high-pitched sounds, and haunting choir singing that form a gigantic wall of sound growing underneath distraught, angry vocals. This wall gives way to a sinister duet between vocals singing of getting the “child out of this danger” and staccato-filled solo cello. Shrill strings and more of Haxan Cloak’s punishing percussion find their way into the mix until a choir signifies a shift in mood from sinister to beautiful. The choir is almost church like and the strings sound beautiful and hopeful as Bjork’s layered vocals come in, singing of a “swarm of sound around our heads” that come in to heal and “relieve us from the pain”. To me this part seems like an epiphanic moment, when a bright future outside of the pain and suffering can finally be seen in the distance.
Taking place 11 months after the break-up, the album’s second half seems to come more from a place of reflection than a place of suffering. “If I regret us, I’m denying my soul to grow. Don’t remove my pain, it is my chance to heal”. When in the depths of pain, it’s easy to fall into a state of regret; if the relationship never happened, all of the pain caused by separation could have been avoided. It takes a long process of healing and introspection before you realize that even a failed relationship and the pain it brings can be a source of strength and wisdom. Sometimes it takes losing love to understand just how powerful love really is, “for in love we are immortal, eternal and safe from death […] without love I feel the abyss, understand your fear of death”. This feeling of lovelessness is supported by a repetitive, almost discordant melody of strings and electronics on “Notget”. This melody eventually gives into flowing strings and a marching beat that sounds like it is periodically reversing and un-reversing itself. The discordant motif sounds more and more dire every time it reappears due to the ever-growing web of Bjork’s haunting vocals. By the end, the song is just an ominous thicket of disintegrating beats and electronics, discordant strings and an abyss of voices.
The appropriately titled “Atom Dance” comes in with a strange 5/4 waltz of pizzicato strings. Additional layers of strings (both arco and pizzicato) get slowly added into the mix, creating constantly evolving polyphonic interactions. This increasing complexity is supported by the looped, bouncy beat gradually growing busier and busier. Waves of oceanic noise and find themselves flowing back and forth between the right and left channels, creating a feeling of constant restlessness. “When you feel the flow as primal love, enter the pain and dance with me”. Bjork’s invitation is answered as experimental singer Antony (from Antony and the Johnson’s) comes in to join her “Atom Dance”. This isn’t the first time the two have sung together, they had another duet on the strangely beautiful “Dull Flame of Desire”, my favorite song from Bjork’s 2007 album Volta. Once again, their eccentric, unique voices are perfectly complementary as their melodies and harmonies gracefully dance around each other.
Both songs on the final side consist of glitchy, futuristic beats that juxtapose the nostalgic baroque strings and makes the listener feel like they’re listening to an orchestra on a space ship. “Mouth Mantra” builds into a sub-bass fueled breakdown with Bjork singing of “negative space” and “black hole[s]”, followed by a scattered beat littered with bleeps, bloops, laser sounds and disjointed strings coming from every direction. Album closer “Quicksand” starts off with an aggressive IDM breakbeat that stops and starts at will. Closer listening reveals that the beat is full of chopped up vocal samples, looped strings, and glitchy bass that would feel right at home on Death Grips’ “Niggas on the Moon”, which itself featured Bjork vocal samples and was heavily inspired by Bjork’s album Medulla.
Ultimately, while this album is not exactly sonically adventurous (for Bjork standards), it feels like she focused everything she learned from her past experiments into the most emotionally engaging and cohesive album she’s released since 2001’s Verspertine (and perhaps ever).