Few occasions afford us the opportunity to collectively geek out to the extent that we are over Björk’s surprise (and surprisingly devastating!) release, Vulnicura. As critics scrambled to publish reviews, coverage of the album was hurried. Now that we’ve had a week to let it marinate, we can better discern the function of each song in the organism of this painfully thought-out album. “Stonemilker” — the first track, and the one most steeped in traditional Björkdom — begins her documentation of a relationship’s deterioration, and is the most uncertain. Unlike the pre- and post-breakup songs that come after it (each is demarcated by a time-stamp based on its proximity to her separation from Matthew Barney), its melody is decorated with faint glimmers of hope. But because we know the rest of the story, that hope, after a few listens, makes “Stonemilker” Vulnicura’s most tragic track — and perhaps the saddest Björk has ever written.
Most have cited “Black Lake” — the song that’s the most blatantly set in an emotional quagmire, coming immediately after the breakup — as the album’s depressive nadir, and it’s in part for this reason that “Stonemilker” actually provides a more wrenching experience. “Black Lake,” gorgeous and mired as it is in sadness, fragmented as it is by long pauses suggesting total emptiness and immobility, still gives a sense that the artist is in the midst of a process that will be cathartic. It’s the dark beginning of a purge that will leave her as a “glowing shining rocket returning home… burn[ing] off layer by layer” as she “enter[s] the atmosphere.” “Stonemilker,” however, as the opening track, bears the weight of the potentiality of the black lake that will become her heart with a hopefulness that the rest of the album exposes as crushingly misguided: Björk here bravely makes dramatic irony of her own pain.
There’s a line in the Feist song “Let It Die” that somehow continues to seem uncannily wise: “The saddest part of a broken heart isn’t the ending so much as the start,” she put it back in 2004, in blunt rhyme that’s admittedly embarrassing to quote here as dogma, but by which I’ll stand. “Stonemilker” effectively uses this notion of the hopeful or loving past as the object of mourning in a rupture rather than the rupture itself — which usually comes at a time when partners’ emotional attachments have been more normalized and even whittled away to nothing. Similarly, more than any other song on the album, “Stonemilker” looks back on Björk’s old work, while the rest, perhaps in part due to her collaboration with Arca, looks forward. Both lyrically and sonically, the song is a beautiful composite of former Björks, deliberately echoing the songs she wrote at the all-consuming beginning of her romance with Matthew Barney.
It makes sense that “Stonemilker” is the only song on the album produced solely by Björk — it is her at her most essential, recalling, in its different parts, tracks such as “All Is Full of Love,” “Mutual Core,” and “Who Is It?” — tracks that saw the artist at her most emotionally resonant, and, interestingly, at her most blissful. The way the intro of swelling strings opens into a slow, steady rhythm, whose beats sound like the distant, muffled crashing of rocks (a far cry from the rest of the album’s frantic microbeats) is immediately reminiscent of “All Is Full of Love.” That song represented hope, regrowth, and love at the end of Homogenic, an album that took its violent extroversion from Björk’s ordeal with a crazed fan who taped his own suicide and sent it to her, alongside an acid bomb that was intercepted by the police. The beat on “Stonemilker” is almost identical to that of “All Is Full of Love,” but less vehement, enfeebled by uncertainty; the two seem to bracket an era of coital and familial bliss, before and after which Björk sonically documents sprawling emotional turmoil.
In the song’s opening lines, where she longs to realign herself with her lover and “find [their] mutual coordinates,” Björk evokes “Mutual Core,” a single from Biophilia, the last album she released before her break with Barney. In that song — which, like all Biophilia’s songs, reached outward to underscore identical patterns in nature and music, as well as scientific and emotional patterns – Björk spun a geological allegory about long-distance relationships, comparing the couple to tectonic plates “trying to form a mutual core.” These opening lines of “Stonemilker” mark the beginning of the degeneration of their ability to do so.
On “Who Is It?,” a song Björk wrote while pregnant with Matthew Barney’s child, the blissful chorus was, “Who is it? That never let you down / Who is it? That gave you back your crown,” using a rhetorical question about the values of a supportive partner, essentially paying him a loving compliment. Here, on “Stonemilker,” the question is flipped — instead of being flatteringly rhetorical, in asking in the bridge of “Stonemiker,” “Who is open-chested?/And who has coagulated?” she’s actually bluntly stating that the latter “who” is “him” and that he’s shut himself off. Once, his “embrace [was] a fortress.” Now, she feels like she’s “milking a stone” in an attempt to feel that again.
“Stonemilker” has the grandiose sound of having been sung in a cathedral, but like one tiny person confronted by the largeness of ideas of God or the architectural complexity of one such structure, Björk’s voice sounds distant, echoing, fighting not to get sucked in by the threat of a vast abyss. When, in the coming songs, she actually confronts the abyss, her voice becomes stronger. The crushing sadness of this song is that it’s the beginning of the end, and in listening to it, we feel at once closest to the love that was recently lost, while also being aware of the turmoil ahead.
The song’s near-nonchalant melancholy — its false impression that it can afford nonchalance because the lovers’ disconnect is just a bump in the road — makes it more unbearably sad than the rest of the album. In this song, she carries all of her previous work on her back like arrows in a quiver, pulling references out one by one and shooting them at listeners to remind them of the manifold ways she once documented the complexities of her love. For now, she’s about to document the complexities of its disappearance. As she did in “Hyperballad,” she stands over an emotional cliff, now wondering if her lover will prevent her from finding out what her body will sound like “slamming against those rocks.” Given what she reveals immediately in the liner notes, we know he won’t — didn’t. If you’re wondering about that sound, there’s always the rest of Vulnicura. It’s a fascinating sound, because Björk is powerful enough to peel herself off the rocks, get up and limp away. She documents that, too.