Vulnicura Worthy of Its Praise
Björk’s beautiful new album pulls you in and skirts the pitfalls of her more recent work
There’s an amazing moment on “There’s More to Life Than This,” a jumping dance track from Björk’s first album, where she literally steps out of the song: halfway through, there is the sound of a door closing and as the beat suddenly becomes a low, muted thump in the background, Björk’s voice is foregrounded, almost a cappella, tremulous and impassioned. Then the door opens, she goes back inside, and the song continues as if nothing happened, but the listener is left with the voyeuristic pleasure of having glimpsed a raw, exposed talent, slightly strained but absolutely determined and achingly sincere.
Vulnicura, Björk’s ninth studio album, feels like an album-length version of that moment. For at least a decade (and probably, to be honest, since that swan dress at the Oscars) Björk’s mythos has threatened to eclipse her recorded catalog. Her increasingly elaborate concepts and visuals have proven more interesting than the albums themselves. Even Volta felt overbearing and self-important despite, or maybe because of, its Timbaland hype and fun-toting press releases. Now, two months before a major MoMA career retrospective poised to permanently cement her reputation as a Serious, Respected Artist, Björk has unexpectedly released an emotional, exposed, and intense album.
I’m resistant to “return to form” narratives, mostly because I think the artists most deserving of decades-long attention demonstrate a capacity for continual development and elaboration rather than adhering to a recognizably static form. But Vulnicura is the best thing Björk has released in a long time, and in many places it echoes back to her first four albums, an astounding run of records that created and cemented her global reputation as a singer, songwriter, and producer. The album is grounded in three core elements, the same elements whose impressive interweaving lies at the core of past Björk masterpieces like “Isobel” and “Bachelorette”: lush, evocative strings that are sensual without being sentimental; surprising, driving beats that are forward-thinking without overshadowing the songs; and impassioned, intense vocals that do justice to their songs’ lyrics rather than masking their vacuity beneath a forced coloratura.