There’s a simple question I like to ask myself when listening to an album for the first time: “Could someone else have made this?” About 99% of the time, the answer is “yes” — maybe someone else wouldn’t have made literally the same album with all the same choices, but they could have easily approximated it by finding the right influences and adopting a sound that’s been done before. That doesn’t mean it’s bad necessarily, just that it isn’t really breaking new ground (because that’s hard to do), and as a result it’s hard to be blown away by it. The albums that really make me love music are in the 1% “no” category, and have some level of personality or artistry that makes them completely unique.
The reason for my well-documented obsession/fascination with Björk is that she scores very highly on this test. Every Björk album sounds unlike anything else ever made, including artists who consciously tried to sound like her. I also enjoy statistical oddities, and I’ve started to think of Björk in these terms — as an artist, she is an outlier. Her combination of creativity and incredible natural vocal ability puts her on a musical island, where there are no real comparisons except to herself, as illustrated by this box-and-whisker plot. (I’m not entirely sure if I did this right because I haven’t taken a math class since high school.)
Björk’s latest album, Vulnicura, is what she calls a “complete heartbreak album,” and it details the dissolution of her long-time partnership with artist Matthew Barney in chronological order. The first six songs are labeled with a time period relative to the breakup (such as “9 months before”), with the first three taking place before and the next three taking place after. In this great Pitchfork interview, she expressed fear that this concept was too “boring and predictable,” but the simplicity of it ends up being a source of Vulnicura‘s power. In the last few years, Björk has made fascinating conceptual albums — Biophilia was a science-filled ode to the natural world, Medulla an audacious a capella album — that sometimes got a bit too brainy for their own good. Vulnicura‘s story helps it find that crucial heart/brain balance that Björk did better than anyone on her classic albums Post and Homogenic.
The honesty of Vulnicura is what really makes it a stunning listen. It’s not like other music is dishonest necessarily, but this album takes it to a near-uncomfortable level — Björk spares no details, and the subject matter inevitably gets brutally sad as her relationship evaporates. This peaks with “Black Lake,” the 10-minute post-breakup centerpiece of the album, in which she describes her “soul torn apart” and broken spirit. The chronological concept of Vulnicura really pays off, as it makes the album into a story, and the mood of the songs shifts as the relationship progresses. Opening song “Stonemilker” is a majestic, orchestral track that wouldn’t sound out of place on Homogenic, and portrays the first seeds of discontent as she demands “emotional respect.” Things get progressively darker from there, as she tells the story of their last night together, the aftermath of the breakup, and the effect it had on herself and the rest of her family.
All of this sadness, along with the lengthy songs and the fact that it’s Björk, has already led to Vulnicura being branded as one of those ordeal albums that is a chore to listen to. At least part of what makes it so affecting is that Björk has created such a connection with her fans over the years, and I’ve always thought of her music as this Utopian idea that crosses genre, language, and geographical barriers. That makes it difficult to listen to her reach what seems to be a rock-bottom emotionally. That said, I also found myself inspired by the openness of the album, especially given her celebrity stature — this was not an album that she needed to make to prove herself. Rather, it seems like something she just had to make for the sake of emotional catharsis, which Vulnicura certainly provides. On the closing track, “Quicksand,” she states a possible moral of the album: “when we’re broken, we are whole, and when we’re whole, we are broken.”
Vulnicura really reaffirmed what I am always looking for in music. The whole reason I listen to it, talk about it, and write stupid posts about it is for albums like this, that are able to express emotions and make you feel things in a way that other media simply couldn’t. It’s an album for people who still want music that has intellectual and emotional depth, that challenges you, demands your attention, and makes you think. And there is only one person who could have made it. Vulnicura may be bleak and difficult, but it is also a triumph.