Into the Black Lake: The Curiously Abstract Beauty of Björk’s Break-up Album, ‘Vulnicura’

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I’ve always found Björk’s music fascinating in a sort of abstract sense — her curious vocal delivery, her constant devotion to exploring the possibilities of sound. But with the occasional exception, like “Hyperballad” or “All Is Full of Love,” I’ve rarely found it emotionally affecting. It’s too oblique. Listening feels like looking at some sort of great futuristic gleaming sculpture, something you can appreciate for its artistry and beauty without ever quite being able to relate to it at a personal level.

It’s no coincidence, by the way, that a visual metaphor is the most effective for describing that feeling — visual aesthetics have always been hugely important to Björk’s work. It feels notable that perhaps her most emotive moment, the video for “All Is Full of Love,” featured androids. Even her most viscerally affecting work — “Pagan Poetry,” for instance, with its “He makes me want to hurt myself” [Edit: as kindly pointed out on Twitter by mikel1814, the lyric is actually “hand myself [over]” and its video’s accompanying scenes of piercing — is crafted from strange angles and visions, twisting both visually and sonically in and out of recognizable reality into some abstracted digital realm.

From the outset, though, Vulnicura promises something different. The album cover features Björk with her heart literally torn out from her chest (leaving, it must be said, a distinctly vaginal cavity). As if the message wasn’t clear enough, the Facebook post that announced the album’s early release also explained that this is very much a break-up record (about, presumably, her separation from former husband Matthew Barney):

i guess i found in my lap one year into writing it a complete heartbreak album . kinda surprised how thoroughly i had documented this in pretty much accurate emotional chronology …. like 3 songs before a break up and three after . so the anthropologist in me sneaked in and i decided to share them as such . first i was worried it would be too self indulgent but then i felt it might make it even more universal . and hopefully the songs could be a help , a crutch to others and prove how biological this process is : the wound and the healing of the wound . psychologically and physically . it has a stubborn clock attached to it . there is a way out.

She wasn’t exaggerating — the album’s first six songs are each tagged in the album’s digital booklet with an actual chronology, starting with “nine months before” and ending with “11 months after.” Anyone who has been through any sort of break-up will find them eminently relatable, and she’s right — the experience does have a stubborn clock to it, so that even if you know in an intellectual sense that eventually you’ll feel better, the only way that can happen is with time. Even if you’re lucky enough to have dodged heartbreak, the lyrics here are rendered in such a way that I suspect you’ll find them pretty affecting regardless.

The songs read like diary entries, which perhaps they were — as “Stonemilker” notes, “Moments of clarity are so rare/ I better document this.” That song, the album’s first, describes being the one in the relationship who’s constantly trying to get the other to express themselves (“Who is open, and who has shut up/ And if one feels closed/ How does one stay open?/ We have emotional needs/ I wish to synchronize our feelings/ Show some emotional respect”). “Lionsong” describes the numbness of knowing that things are most likely coming to an end, and the way you find yourself yearning for a resolution either way: “Maybe he will come out of this/ Somehow I’m not too bothered/ I’d just like to know.”

The lyric to “History of Touches,” the last of the “before” songs, is quietly devastating. It describes Björk waking up her lover in the middle of the night to make love for what she knows will be the last time, and all the feelings that realization catalyzes. If you’ve lived this experience, you can relate immediately to how strange and sad and free and empty it feels; if not, Björk’s words are enough to take you there anyway: “Every single touch/ We ever touch each other/ Every single fuck/ We had together/ Is in a wondrous time lapse with us here at this moment.”

The three “after” songs are similarly heartbreaking: “Black Lake” finds Björk in the immediate aftermath of the break-up, comparing her heart to the lake of the title, and also meditating on the loss of a family: “Family was our sacred mutual mission/ Which you abandoned.” The following track — entitled simply “Family” — continues that theme, asking, “Where do I go to make an offering/ To mourn our miraculous triangle/ Father mother child?” And finally, “Notget” looks back with quiet, rueful sadness:

There are another three songs that follow the six-song breakup cycle, and they’re an interesting trio — all of them seem to catalog the healing process, with “Atom Dance” speaking of “let[ting] this ugly wound breathe.” And, at the very last, “Quicksand” seems to hint at some sort of reconciliation, the understanding that for all their love, the lovers are better off apart: “When we’re broken we are whole/ When we’re whole we’re broken/ We are siblings of the sun/ Let’s step into this beam.”

As far as the lyrics go, then, this is surely the most straightforwardly confessional album that Björk has ever made. The music, though…. well, it’s as oblique and complex as ever, perhaps more so — there’s a sense that she’s counterbalancing the lyrical forthrightness with some of the strangest music she’s ever made. It’s fascinating that she described the record by saying, “I had like 20 technological threads of things I could have done, but the album couldn’t be futuristic. It had to be singer/songwriter. Old-school. It had to be blunt.” Because the album is futuristic, to my ears at least, and it’s not singer/songwriter-y at all.

There’s rarely anything as conventional as a verse/chorus structure, which is what one tends to associate with singer/songwriter music. Neither is there any sense that the music serves the words — instead, Björk idiosyncratic phrasing twists, stretches, and sometimes breaks words to fit over the strange structures of the songs, making it hard to understand what she’s saying without referring to the lyric booklet. The tracks are dense, multi-layered, and immersive, stacking sounds upon sounds upon sounds, string sections over fractured beats, vocal samples over churning noise.

The result feels both futuristic and chaotic. Or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like it’s following patterns that you can’t quite put your finger on, which is both disconcerting and disorienting. It’s also exhilarating in a strange way. If you have a cursory knowledge of songwriting, or even if you’ve just listened to a lot of music over the years, you generally have some intuitive understanding of where a track is going and what might come next — the chorus, the middle eight, a shift in tempo or mood, where the melody might go as it ventures out over a new chord or resolves to the tonic. There’s none of that here. Tracks veer off on unexpected tangents, beats swim out of the mix at unexpected times, melodies jump around and evolve into entirely different lines.

This is all interesting, in the most literal sense of the word: someone who’s a far more competent producer than me would no doubt have a field day sitting down and trying to work out how these tracks were put together. I’m not entirely sure the musical constructions always serve the lyrics, though. Björk’s best songs, in my opinion, have always been the ones that have fitted the sounds over the song, rather than vice versa. At times the emotion of Vulnicura gets submerged in sound. But when everything does come together — which it does often enough on this album — it’s to stunning effect.