As you would know if you had read any of the extensive coverage preceding its formal release this week (it was put out on iTunes in January, two months ahead of schedule, as a response to leaked versions), “Vulnicura” is Björk‘s contribution to the distinguished literature of the “breakup album.” To be sure, even without prior knowledge, the album’s subtext would have become obvious the first time through, thanks to the dated subtitles of its first six songs (e.g., “9 months before,” “2 months after”) and the subject matter of the lyrics.
So, as with all such autobiographical art, it’s fair to ask whether we are being drawn more deeply into a private matter than we’re comfortable with, and whether a work of therapeutic benefit to the artist is universal enough to speak to a disinterested audience. In other words, is it art, or is it Oprah?
I will admit to a TMI cringe or two while listening to “Vulnicura,” especially the first time through. The more I listened, and the more I detached, the more I admired the album’s manifold musical virtues — and the more it moved me.
Funny thing, I can hardly ever listen to Björk without being reminded of Baroque music, especially that of the 17th century. Sure enough, the first song, “Stonemilker” opens with a ground (i.e., simple bass pattern that is then repeated underneath unfolding variations) much like that of Pachelbel’s “Canon,” and to which it returns periodically. This technique, a Björk favorite, helps provide unity and structure to her fanciful melodic explorations. The album’s superb Henry Purcell-like string scoring adds to the Baroque impression. And speaking of the “English Orpheus,” the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Black Lake (4 months after)” is nothing less than a stunning aria in the tradition of Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” and Claudio Monteverdi‘s “Lamento della ninfa.” I dare anyone to listen to all three and tell me that the comparison is unjustified.
Not everything on “Vulnicura” reaches this level of inspiration, but then again, not every song in Schubert’s “Winterreise” or Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” is a hit either. Like those immortal works, Björk’s latest might be best heard not as an album of disparate tracks but as an integral song cycle. Kudos also to The Haxan Cloak and Arca for programming and production that enhances the music without overwhelming it.
It’s now over 20 years since Björk’s “Debut,” and her music remains as timely and relevant now as then. Of how many creative artists can that be said after two decades of work? Few musicians of any genre challenge themselves and their listeners as consistently as Björk, whose every project reveals hitherto unknown aspects of this protean genius’s boundless creativity. I can’t wait to hear what she does next, but still have much to discover in her latest. Let me give it another spin…
(For now, Björk has decided not to put “Vulnicura” on Spotify, though I’m sure there are other ways to check the album out. Like purchasing it, for instance.)