With her loyal fanbase, incredible natural ability, and established reputation as one of music’s innovators, it would have been easy for Björk to coast on her ninth album, Vulnicura. Instead, she released her most personal album yet, a heartbreaking and challenging work that is as far from traditional pop as she has ever gone. The result is an album that is classic Björk: it sounds alien, but is also deeply human.
Björk’s separation from longtime partner Matthew Barney sets the stage for Vulnicura, which has the most traditional concept of any recent Björk album. However, her execution remains singular. Bringing back the strings that defined 1997’s Homogenic, Vulnicura has a sweeping beauty that portrays her heartbreak in majestic tones, with the music becoming more dark and formless as the sadness increases. The chronological narrative gives Vulnicura a sense of momentum, and also adds to its “plunging into the depths of despair” feeling as the listener pretty much follows Björk during and after the separation.
Heartbreak is such a common, enduring theme in music, to the point that many artists sing about it because that’s just what musicians do. I always wonder if some of them have ever really had their heart broken. With Björk, there is no doubt: Vulnicura has too much intense personal energy in it and too many specific, brutal observations. This makes it one of the more difficult albums of the year, but also a vital listening experience that offers a deep, honest portrayal of the artist’s life while sounding like nothing else.