With all of its Kanye West parallels—producer Arca, the short-notice release, the singular artistic voice—it’s tempting to call Björk’s ninth album Bjeezus. But the circumstances of Vulnicura more closely resemble Madonna’s recent EP: Both were thrust into the world earlier than planned, a reaction to the increasingly common problem of music leaking.
But that’s only the second saddest thing about Vulnicura. The real bummer is Björk’s state of mind: The hyper-personal, confessional lyrics detail the dissolution of her relationship with long-time partner Matthew Barney. “We have emotional needs,” she bluntly states on the album’s most melodically direct and accessible track, “Stonemilker,” adding, “I wish to synchronize our feelings, show some emotional respect.” Still, in Björk’s words from her revealing interview with Pitchfork, published this week, “I got a feeling I am going to win in the long run.”
That interview finds Björk making a hard and fair line in the sand, noting that the album is a collaboration of sorts with her co-producers Arca and The Haxan Cloak, but she’s resolute in clarifying that this is her album, that it is to her credit and blame when the LP succeeds and fails. There are aesthetic elements that might come from her cohorts, whether in creation or in influence—The Haxan Cloak’s hand is felt on the slow-motion bass thuds, whiplashes, and terrifying cello solo on “Family,” for instance. Arca’s identity can be felt in the glitchy, understated dance beats that come and go on tracks like “Atom Dance” and the EDM-indebted build and drop of “Black Lake.” When coupled with the orchestral soundscapes already familiar to Björk, there is a fluidity to the collaborations.
Despite those collaborators and a nightmarish duet with Antony Hegarty that appears near the album’s close, Vulnicura is the sound of solitude, of looking at the world without the partner you thought would be standing with you forever, shoulder to shoulder. It’s a shame that the comfort so many get just from hearing Björk’s voice can’t really be felt by the singer herself. “Noise by noise by noise,” she sings on “Mouth Mantra,” surrounded by whisping laser beams, “I have followed a path that took sacrifices / Now I sacrifice this scar / Can you cut it off.” The listener can’t “cut it off,” and for now, we are left to watch Björk suffer, unable to reciprocate.
“History Of Touches,” on which Björk drops an F-bomb and remembers the details of encounters long passed, could have provided an alternate title to the album. It’s a 180 from her last, Biophilia, with its accompanying iPad application and eyes focused firmly on the cosmos and the vastness within the human body. One big event has sent Björk from looking to the future to remembering the minutiae of being in love. The musical moments that capture Björk’s heartbreak are frequently stunning on Vulnicura, but the whole thing is a little shy on hooks and reasons to take the grueling journey with her often. And that’s what keeps it from being her Yeezus: The heartbreak makes it powerful, but also difficult to enjoy.