Monday, February 16, 2015

album review: 'vulnicura' by björk

And now we come to an artist to which I have a complicated relationship, the sort I can definitely respect but not quite love, one that I understand but struggle to like. An artist that has received critical acclaim throughout her career, but a career that I'd ultimately brand as pretty uneven.

Yep, it's time that I finally talk about Bjork, Icelandic singer-songwriter and one of the most distinctive and unique performers of her time. Breaking the mid-90s, Bjork immediately established herself through her uniquely expressive voice and half-playful, half-tragic approach to her delivery and songwriting. And for the longest time for me, that voice put me off really getting into her, unearthly and surprisingly visceral but just never really gripping me. And one of the reasons this review is late is because I went back and listened through Bjork's entire discography before covering this record, which leaked months ahead of schedule. So now with the benefit of added context, what do I think of her?

Well, while I've come to appreciate her and found some of her material very powerful and evocative, she can be very hit-and-miss for me. Like most critics, I tend to like her 90s material a lot more than her releases in the 2000s, mostly because those newer records have some great ideas that don't quite materialize as well as I'd hope. Part of this comes in a change in focus, in that most of Bjork's early work had a more intimate, almost primal thematic focus, which allowed her off-kilter vocals and abstract lyrics to really shine. But starting around Medulla, her material got a lot more fragmented, with experimentation that felt half-realized and really did not pay the same dividends as they did on previous records. The a capella of Medulla, the horns on Volta, and especially the attempted blend of delicate melodies with the half-formed, spasmodic grooves of Biophilia, they never resonated in the same way as her earlier material did, and with her lyrics becoming more politically-themed and outwardly focused which didn't fit nearly as well, I just couldn't connect with Bjork's material in the same way. I'm not saying it didn't have an audience, but these were records that felt thin conceptually and almost unfinished, lacking the melodic presence and foundation to support the flights of experimentation.

But rumour has it her newest album was coming back to earth, back to the potent emotions that drove Homogenic and Vespertine. And while Post is probably my favourite Bjork album, Vespertine is a close second, so I planned to revisit her entire discography to prepare - and then the album dropped two months early. So much for that, but I figured I wanted to be fair and thus went through the back catalog regardless - better late and right than early and uninformed. So finally I dug into Vulnicura - is it the return to form for which we've been hoping?

Well, it is - and arguably, it's by stripping back to what always made Bjork a compelling performer in the first place - expressive vocals, great melodies, and meticulously crafted electronic experimentation. So yeah, I'm going to echo a lot of other critics and say that Vulnicura is a great album, easily in the top half of Bjork records. Not quite my favourite, but there's a lot to really love about this album, and I definitely appreciate that her back-to-basics approach still has enough material to really sink into.

So let's start with the element that I appreciated most on this record - the instrumentation and production. What I've always loved about Bjork's work is her knack for inventive melodies, and she brought her a-game here in her strings arrangements - elegantly poised and precisely controlled, and yet there are still ragged edges and moments where she went with a more unconventional progression or time signature that I found really interesting. There are a few moments melodically I don't love - the opening viola tone on 'Notget' just didn't work for me, for example - but most of the strings arrangements on this record are just heartbreakingly gorgeous. The low aching swell of 'Stonemilker', the grief-stricken and bleak tension of 'Black Lake', the slightly off-kilter 5/4 groove on 'Atom Dance', and even the more intimidating and dark 'Mouth Mantra' and 'Quicksand' that round out the record. Of course, most of that is courtesy of additional percussion and production provided by Arca, and he really does fit well with Bjork on this record - where the strings add poise and melody and swells of gravitas, his percussion is skittery, coming in well-textured bubbles that provide the thin skeleton of the songs. It adds a sense of brittleness to this record that I really do like. As with the melodies, there are a few places where the groove just feels a little underweight, could have used a little more thicker presence to drive the track, but overall, it's a great pairing of producers that really shows how they compliment each other.

But really, this album is all Bjork, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the vocals. I do miss a little more of the visceral power she can have that's both a little alien and terrifying and yet all the more impressive - but that's not the focus of this album. She's aiming for more of a vulnerable delivery on most of these tracks, and man, every quiver of her voice shows the fine-tuned control and delicate touch that still managed to deliver impressive strength. She sounds gorgeous on this album, a singular entity - and thus anyone singing along with her tends to suffer in comparison. I'm not saying Antony Hegarty is a bad singer, but in a song all about finding a harmonious balance in love between two hemispheres, something primal and atomic, he's just not Bjork's equal, and the song suffers for it.

But now we need to discuss lyrics, and if the back-to-basics approach is most obvious, it's here. The lyrics are almost deceptively simple to decode in comparison with the grandiose metaphors of her earlier work - which is part of the point, because for all intents and purposes, this is a breakup album, detailing her separation from American artist Matthew Barney. Bjork herself even described the lyrics as having a raw, almost teenage sentiment - and in a sense that's true, in their simplicity, but that doesn't take away from their power, especially coming from Bjork's more mature presence and actual words. Most of this maturity comes through in this album's framing and structure - included in the liner notes of this record are dates for each song, each representing a specific time before and after the breakup, showing the whole scene develop and how Bjork manages to find some vestige of solace.

But the most important pieces come through in the details, especially when it comes to describing their relationship. Most of it is a personality conflict, and a believable one - lack of communication on both sides, his morose behavior and her impatience and frustration at dealing with it. And she doesn't shy away from painting a fuller picture - she assumes she'll be able to get along fine with the passion fizzling out on 'Lionsong', and when she tries to make a sexual reconnection on 'History Of Touches', she does it by waking him in the middle of the night. Of course this leads to a breakup and the sudden realization that her fractured family unit makes her all the more conscious of death, thus unintentionally sharing some of his feelings like they couldn't before. That possibility of death of those close to her scares her as it does in the album closer 'Quicksand' where there was the possibility her mother was dying. But it's more elemental than that - less death but absence and silence, where her fear materializes even more on 'Mouth Mantra', where she writes about losing her voice and requiring complex surgery to get it back. Originally, both it and 'Quicksand' felt out of place on this album, not really fitting with the break-up narrative, but thematically they fit as Bjork struggles to reconcile how to deal with the pain - but not get rid of it. It and the experiences behind it are a part of her, and while it's raw now, dealing with it is better than pretending it doesn't exist. Like it or not, Bjork's love for her ex-partner is a part of her, and that duality of love is quintessential to the human experience. It also presents a decidedly feminine picture of how one deals with that sort of pain and fear - everything was stilled and hidden away across the first half of the album, a traditionally male perspective on how one deals with that sort of thing, whereas that vulnerability and learning to live with that pain and become stronger through it is more of a feminine trait. And there's a balance that needs to be held between them that I feel is best encapsulated in a lyric on 'Quicksand': 'When I'm whole, I'm broken / And when I'm broken, I'm whole'. When that balance breaks, you get pain on both sides, but coming together in favour of something bigger makes it worth it in the end.

So how do I feel about this album? Well, it's gorgeous, and it's easily one of Bjork's best. I wouldn't say I totally love it - some of the melodies don't quite connect for me, and I still feel there could have been more details provided to how Bjork managed to heal - as good as 'Mouth Mantra' and 'Quicksand' are, they do feel instrumentally and lyrically a little detached from the overall record. But I'm not going to deny there's a ton of passion, raw emotion, and power to this album presented in a beautifully elegant and surprisingly accessible record. As such, it's a solid 8/10 from me and definitely a recommendation. Folks, after a few of Bjork's stranger experiments, this is a record you definitely want to take in - sometimes, finding that elemental core, that primal love, that's healing enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment