Love is a universal subject. It’s a feeling that nearly everyone in the world has felt at some point. Love is also extremely complex, as its a feeling that also encompasses many others. Regret, happiness, lust, and many others. The feeling this album is going for is heartbreak. Vulnicura is Björk taking her breakup with long-time partner and artist Matthew Barney, and studying and evaluating what went wrong. With this concept at hand, Björk crafts her best album in over a decade.
The album starts off with the impactful ‘Stonemilker’, solely produced and composed by Björk, that tells the listener right away what they are getting themselves into. In the album’s inserts, the subtitle of ‘Stonemilker’ reads “9 months before.” Assumingly, this song was written 9 months before her breakup. Right away though, it is established in the lyrics that something is not right with this relationship Björk is in. There’s something that needs fixing, but her partner does not want to even attempt to figure out what’s wrong.
By the time we reach the album’s centerpiece, ‘Black Lake’, the relationship has ended, and it’s Björk at her most vulnerable point. Two months after her relationship, she is pondering what caused her partner to fall out of love, despite the family she started with him (Barney and Björk have a daughter together, named Ísadóra). She further goes into her feelings about this in ‘Family’, where compares the breakup to be the death of her family, and tries to figure out how to pay respects to this passing. A passing she realizes was months in the making. The protection of her child is still on the top of her priorities, though.
With ‘Notget’, this series of heartbreak songs seems to end, as it is now 11 months since her breakup and the final song to feature the “__ months later” subtitle in the album inserts. With the song, Björk finally seems to come with the terms of the breakup and needs to fight to move on. She does not regret her relationship, as it was a learning experience for her, and it has caused her to grow as a person. She realizes that her significant other and her are both hurt, but in different ways, and must find their own “cures” or as the lyrics state, “remedies.” They must continue to be guardians of their child, as “love will keep all of us safe from death.”
“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” – Björk
To take a break from analyzing the lyrics, the album features a prominent amount of stringwork composed by Björk herself, along with co-production by Arca (who co-produced tracks 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8 with Björk), who’s known for his work with Kanye West on Yeezus and FKA twigs on EP2 and LP1 and mixing from The Haxan Cloak (who also co-produced track 5 with Björk and Arca). The mixture of these beautiful strings and forward-thinking and slightly off-the-walls production works surprisingly well as The Haxan Cloak knows especially when to highlight each bit in these songs. While I was hoping for more focus on Arca’s style of production, considering the subject matter at hand, I’m glad that strings were able to highlight the poignant lyrics perfectly to create a proper tone.
With the rest of the album, there isn’t too much to talk about. The focus after ‘Notget’ is try to move on for the better of her, but there are wounds that still very fresh. If there’s any issues I have with these tracks, it’s a little harder to figure out the metaphors she has in place to represent her relationship. But after a few more listens, I eventually figured them out and it’s more or less reminiscing on the former relationship. By the end on ‘Quicksand’, Björk realizes that she must be strong her child, as she now has more responsibility than before to be a good parent and not allow this to hurt her daughter. She feels that she must always be there.
If there’s anything this album does that Björk has not done for a long time, it’s that it is human. While Volta and Biophilia aren’t awful records, they don’t strike the same emotional cord as albums like Homogenic or Vespertine, as they focus more on elements such as politics or science. With Vulnicura, Björk goes back to basics in her songwriting, opting for more universal subject matter, but keeping her production as forward-thinking as usual, mixing classical with futuristic. When people discuss artists who push boundaries and are constantly evolving, Björk better be towards the top of that list.