Monday, January 26, 2015

Bjork – Vulnicura

Bjork – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)

Until now, Robin Thicke and Bjork had nothing in common, other than the fact that neither would be considered a confessional singer/songwriter. Now they’ve both succumbed to one of the oldest tropes of the singer/songwriter: the profoundly uncomfortable breakup album. Not just a collection of songs that are incidentally about the end of a certain relationship, songs that ring with universal truths: but a song cycle that is explicitly and unavoidably about two people and one shared pain.

No one wanted to hear Thicke’s take on the matter. A lot of people want to hear Bjork’s because—well, her audience is far less fickle than Thicke’s, for starters. Also, her ex is a famous avant-garde filmmaker, which makes the whole affair that much more voyeuristic. Especially with lines clearly about two easily identifiable people: “You fear my limitless emotions / I’m bored of your apocalyptic obsessions.”

Bjork, as we know, is a smart, tough woman. Even in a state of emotional devastation, her pen is sharp. (“Moments of clarity are so rare / I’d better document this.”) Conceptually, Vulnicura is note-perfect: all the turmoil, confusion and clarity are here, both lyrically and musically. Certain songs are subtitled with their place in the timeline of the breakup: “9 months before,” “2 months after.” We can trace the evolution of her emotions: three songs before, three songs after, and three undated songs that speak of emancipation (“When we’re broken we are whole / when we are whole we are broken”).

Musically, Vulnicura is both imitative and the inverse of 2001’s Vespertine, the album that documented the beginning of the relationship in question (and arguably the last great Bjork record). Like that record, Vulnicura is dominated by strings and vocal arrangements over subtle electronics. Both are intimate, internal albums, with little that would even lend itself to a remix, for the club (as much of her work has) or otherwise. Both maintain a consistent tone and tempo throughout—though in this case, it’s to a fault.

Much of Vulnicura is brave and fascinating, albeit unsettling—it’s undeniably the most vulnerable and personal Bjork has ever been. And outside of a couple of songs from Volta, it’s the best thing she’s done in at least 10 years (should we blame her ex for that lost decade?). Yet it’s also a hard album to love. The beats and electronics, co-produced by Arca (FKA Twigs, Kanye West), are the least interesting she’s ever worked with. (It’s sad, then, that only now, after a revealing, must-read interview with Pitchfork this month, many people are realizing she deserves credit for production on her records; she’s always been overshadowed by collaborators.) Bjork’s critics have often accused all her melodies of sounding the same; never has that been more true than it is here—maybe it’s intentional (or unconsciously so) that some recall specific songs on Vespertine. The string arrangements are the saving grace, but even those are a reminder of how brilliant 1997’s Homogenic was and is.

Of course, Vulnicura exists as a singular work, capturing a moment in time for one of the most incredibly creative artists of the last 22 years. It was evidently difficult to create, and it succeeds on its own terms. But it’s also primarily a curiosity, one that only those with a pre-existing intimate, emotional connection to Bjork’s music could appreciate. Now that’s she been through this emotional ringer, it’s more exciting to think what she’s going to do next.

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