“If you ever get close to a human and human behaviour, You better get ready to be confused, There is definitely, definitely no logic to human behaviour”, sang Bjork on Human Behaviour, from 1993’s groundbreaking Debut album. Move on 22 years and we find Bjork wrestling to create a fitting epitaph for her relationship with Matthew Barney. “Moments of clarity are so rare, I better document this”, sings Bjork on the album’s opening track Stonemilker. Stonemilker is the album’s most, dare I say it, ‘commercial’ track, a love song for a dying relationship, about the lack of human connection within it and a longing to fix it: “A juxtaposing fate, Find our mutual coordinate”
What is striking about Vulnicura when you begin to listen to it is the glacial quality of the strings which are often like great icebergs coming at you. This ever present string arrangement holds the loose rhythms of the album together in a beautiful yet at times discordant and disconcerting way, as if to perhaps mirror the confusion felt by the singer at the time of writing the songs. The music of Vulnicura twists and turns like the knives that Bjork and partner twist into each other, pushing them and twisting them further, exposing every facet of human emotion and creating a wound which Bjork endeavours to heal.
Even the title, derived from Latin, where Vulnus means ‘wound’ or ‘injury’ and Cura means ‘a cure’, making it’s meaning ‘a cure for wounds’. The title could also be taken to mean ‘A cure for the vulnerable”. A glance at the etymology of the title tells the listener from the outset that this isn’t going to be an easy album to listen to. Out of Bjork’s back catalogue, Vulnicura most resembles 2001’s Vespertine, although such is the raw emotion on this album, more so than any other Bjork album, it is a completely different animal. Vulnicura is more soul searching and introspective than previous works.
In Lionsong, about the state of the relationship 5 months prior to the breakup (so we are told by the sleeve notes), Bjork’s partner is described as lionlike, the more emotionally devoid and therefore stronger of the two. This is a wonderfully crafted song about the differences between female and male emotions. “I’m not taming no animal”, sings Bjork, whilst trying to compensate for her partner’s seeming indifference, defiantly and unsuccessfully trying to act the same way, stating “Somehow I’m not too bothered”. This is a very female album, an album only an experienced woman could have made. This is particularly evident in the line “Our love was my womb” in Black Lake. Lionsong is a quest to understand her partner’s emotions and that of the human race in general. 22 years after Human Behaviour and it has taken the breakup of her relationship to truly begin to understand the logic of human emotion.
History of Touches, one of the album’s many highlights, features a broken atonal rhythm reflecting the discourse of the relationship brought about by the lack of contact. The lack of contact and the loss of connection, whether it be physical or emotional, is a key theme on the album, see also the way in which Bjork attempts to tap into her partner’s emotions on Stonemilker, deciding that trying to get him to show emotion is “like milking a stone”. The theme of unfamiliarity with a lover due to the different way in which they express themselves is extremely important on this album. See, for example, the way in which on Lionsong, Bjork likens her partner to a Vietnam veteran: “Vietnam vet comes home from war, Lands in my house, This wild lion does not fit in this chair”.
The centrepiece of the album is undoubtedly the double emotional shell-shock of Black Lake and Family, two tracks which when twinned together form a mournful, funereal view of the aftermath of a relationship. These two tracks are very much focused on the loss of the singer’s family. Black Lake, an enormous chasm of a wound, is the sound of somebody burnt from the fall out of a breakup, angry and hurt and blaming her partner (“Family was always our sacred mutual mission which you abandoned”) whilst Family finds the singer asking, “How can I pay respects to the death of my family” in a funeral setting of incense and burning candles. On Family, Bjork sings, “How will I sing us out of this” before a glimmer of hope cracks through the darkness with the attempt to use remembrance as a solution in order to move forward. As a centrepiece to the album, Black Lake and Family are an insight into the very essence of the emotions experienced in mourning a death. This obviously wasn’t an easy album for Bjork to create and although magnificent in its execution, depth and sheer scope of even attempting to write down such personal and complex emotions, it is certainly not an easy one to listen to.
In Notget, having deemed it necessary to move on by keeping the memory of the relationshoip alive, the singer then focuses on keeping those wounded by the breakup alive: “Love will keep us safe from death”. I was curious to notice that the timeline in the album’s booklet stops after Notget but was then faced with Atom Dance, a love song attempting to fix the relationship. Here starts the remembrance phase of the mourning in earnest. Atom Dance is music of balletic magnitude, assisted by the haunted vocals of Antony Hegarty, the sound of a whirling, spinning, chemically imbalanced storm brewing. Part way through the song, the balletic music drops away and jars with the sentiment, “No one is a lover alone”, a reminder that, in spite of emotions felt and emotional differences, we are all essentially the same, we are all but chemicals.
Mouth Mantra is a song about the stifling effects of the relationship on Bjork’s creativity. “Remove this hinderance, my throat feels stuck” and “I was separated from what I can do, What I’m capable of , she sings amidst an increasing tempo of what sounds like laser shots being fired at the singer, a suggestion of the situation becoming increasingly more difficult. This is the storm we saw in Atom Dance reaching its dramatic climax.
Quicksand beautifully finishes the album with the sound of the singer trying to pull herself and her partner out of the abyss for the sake of their separate futures and the future of their daughter. This is the final act of healing the wound. There is a very Christian message in the song with the line “and when she’s broken, she is whole”, a surmising that in order to heal and be in a better place, one must first be broken. The final sentiment of the album, “Every time you give up, You Take away our future, And my continuity and my daughters” is a beautiful way to end a beautiful album.
This is not an easy album, but one of the unique beauty which only Bjork can manage. Bjork stands alone as an artist and trying to categorise her or liken her to other artists is a thankless and pointless task. Vulnicura is an absolute expression of raw emotion, a tear jerking and sometimes gut wrenching one that I have rarely heard on a record. With Vulnicura, we are given a glimpse into a very personal and life changing situation, carried out in a manner that other artists could only dream of. 22 years after Debut, Bjork is still pushing new ground and in the process, pushing her emotions to create music that is just as unique as when we first heard her. You may well shed a tear whilst listening to this album, I did, but that is no bad thing, Bjork has achieved the purpose of the album: An outpouring of emotion, a work that lets you know exactly how she is feeling every step of the way and the finest example of a break up record I have ever heard.