Review By: Daniel Baldus
Arriving just in time for record-breaking totals of frigid snowfall across most of the Midwest, Icelandic singer Bjork’s eighth studio album Vulnicura is an appropriate soundtrack to the loneliest season of the year. Featuring instrumentals as vast and plain as a prairie in winter and vocal performances as forlorn as a settler with cabin fever, this chilly tale of lost love proves to be Bjork’s coldest and most contemplative record to date.
The consistent motif that drives Vulnicura from beginning to end is that of vastness. A baritone string on opening track “Stonemilker” greets listeners with a tear-stained hug that spells out bad news for all involved. This train of sadness and mixed metaphors continues rolling down the tracks with the hopelessly fragile singing that kicks off “Lionsong” and the iced-over synthesizers complimenting Bjork’s voice on “History of Touches”. The common theme amongst these different portraits of sadness is that of emptiness; When Stonemilker’s strings cry, they cry alone, without any support from rhythm-keeping drums or tone-steadying basslines. Bjork’s melancholy cries very often find themselves stranded in a wasteland of silence, accompanied only by one or two guardian instruments. This unwavering dedication to minimalism produces a sound that is heartbreakingly lonely; As Bjork speaks to us about the love she has lost, we can sense the isolation she feels through the empty spaces in her songs.
The stories of lost love are heartbreaking enough without the added punch of the album’s aesthetic, however. Bjork displays her willingness to be free from modern trappings of conventional music in her increasingly unorthodox singing style: very often she leaps from melody to melody, rarely contorting her voice in the same way twice. She often ends lines with fancy flourishes like rolling soft consonants off her tongue with the skilled precision of a ballet dancer. Hooks are practically non-existent here, with most of the tracks dedicating themselves wholeheartedly to longform ramblings in song form, often with several phases that flow into one another just as gracefully as the singing.
These massive tracks are fantastic when the aforementioned phases carry enough weight and difference among them to keep the song fresh even after surpassing the length of two ordinary tracks put together (See: Black Lake), but the album slips on the ice a little when these phases don’t progress enough to justify the drawn-out lengths. “Atom Dance” and “Mouth Mantra” in particular suffer from the unfortunate predicament of landing later in the tracklist of an album with an extremely consistent aesthetic. Many of the frosty synths and frostier strings on this record carry a similar emotional character to them, so the idea of hearing another fourteen minutes of this motif before closing track “Quicksand” changes it up may seem like an unnecessarily long stretch of emptiness on repeat listens. These songs bear fruit on individual hearings, but when running a complete marathon of the album they can be a little exhausting. Some more drastic changes in atmosphere like the oppressively dark “Family” could have relieved this problem to a good degree.
Repetition aside, Vulnicura is a compelling listen that captures the emotional essence of emptiness exceptionally well. Bjork has given us the gift of a raw, uncensored look into the troubles she has faced and the sadness she has felt, with the kind of brutal honesty that only great artists are capable of portraying so cleanly. Just like the sting of a beautiful snow-capped mountain’s nippy air, Vulnicura is an excruciatingly gorgeous thing to behold.
Recommended tracks: Quicksand (9), Stonemilker (1), Lionsong (2), Family (5)
FCC Violations: Track 3
Recommended if you like: The Knife, Fever Ray, PJ Harvey