Björk – Vulnicura (4 stars)

Björk – Vulnicura

(One Little Indian)

Despite the involvement of The Haxan Cloak and Arca, Björk’s essential Björkiness invariably dominates on new album Vulnicura

One of the many intriguing things about Björk is that no matter how far-out her music becomes, every album release is heralded as a big, mainstream pop-cultural event. Unlike, say Scott Walker, who over time transitioned in a linear fashion from hit singles to the wilder fringes of avant-garde, Björk has existed effortlessly in both worlds throughout her entire career, embracing and exploring aspects of electronica, dance culture, modern composition, punk, jazz, experimental film and the potential of new technologies. It seems entirely natural that New York’s Museum of Modern Art will this year stage a Björk retrospective.

Prior to Vulnicura’s release, speculation abounded that the involvement of metal aficionado/purveyor of electronic doom The Haxan Cloak would fundamentally alter Björk’s sound. However, as shown by her numerous collaborations with big characters – David Arnold, Timbaland, Lightning Bolt, Matmos, Tanya Taqaq, Mike Patton, etc. – Björk’s essential Björkiness invariably dominates. Though shaped to some extent by the influence of Haxan and fellow collaborator Arca, Vulnicura is no radical, out-of-character departure, rather another subtle twist in Björk’s irrepressible evolution.

Like Biophilia and Medulla before it, Vulnicura has a strong, overarching conceptual theme, but this time it’s personal – a response to the breakdown of a long-term relationship. An odd but pointed choice of opening track, ‘Stonemilker’ is dignified, still, emotional. The lyrics voice a desire for amicable distance over sub-aquatic beats and molten strings that would have been at home halfway through Vespertine. Even given the album’s context, ‘History of Touches’ is an almost uncomfortably intimate reflection on sex and loss. Glassy organ chords phase in and out of existence, lending the piece a ghostly, unreal feeling, evoking an obfuscated memory of touch.

Possibly the bleakest track, ‘Black Lake’ begins with just voice and looming strings, briefly building to violent pounding and dark ambience at the mid-point. The strings, which set the tone for much of the album, are particularly gorgeous here, with a fluid, flowing quality, the notes eliding into each other, creating something with a distinct melody but no clear shape. With metallic scrapes and harrowing wooze, ameliorated in places by womblike billowing and a seraphic chorus, The Haxan Cloak’s influence is most keenly felt on ‘Family’ – one of the more amorphous, drifting pieces on what is generally an amorphous, drifting album.

A small sun burning through dark clouds, the compelling ‘Notget’ offers an almost gamelan-style percussive refrain, soon transposed to massed strings and backed by martial snare drums, creating a kind of South-east Asian march of lament. ‘Atom Dance’ brings a persistent 5/4 violin phrase, bubble-wrap beats, washes of ambience, and an unmistakable if perhaps superfluous guest vocal from Antony Hegarty. The final two tracks are sibling pile-ups of clattering, razor-edged beats and punishing bass, softened by those measured, swirling, elegant strings.

And through it all, there’s that voice – the bristly edges may be softened slightly by time and surgery, but it’s still sumptuously expressive and open, finding the hidden intonations between words and twisting phrases into bold new sculptures. From a certain point of view, Vulnicura finds Björk at the more experimental end of her oeuvre. It’s a fundamentally slippery and elusive work – distant, unknowable, wounded, alien. Yet, from another perspective, it’s most definitely pop music. It’s still lyrics and melodies and harmonies and beats and refrains and direct emotion. It’s just pop music that’s melted – sublimated, even. It’s warm but not necessarily welcoming; intimate but not immediate.

Vulnicura is available now on One Little Indian

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