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Atop Icelandic terrain, singer Bjork stands on the tip of a mountain as the strings in the music video for "Joga", the album highlight to 1997's Homogenic, soundtrack the camera's journey from a crumbling landscape to the island in her chest. A perfect rendering of the "emotional landscapes" she sings earlier in the song and the ideal choice for describing Vulnicura, her 2015 "breakup album". Starting with the somber strings of opener "Stonemilker" and ending with a section of uplifting chords from the same string section playing in a broken loop on "Quicksand", Bjork's ninth album is a bracing, nine-song set that recalls the icy, lush scenery of the 1997 classic and her 2011 effort Biophilia, a living document of heartbreak. Released two months ahead of schedule, the fact that fans can get an album as disquieting as this one so early only means more great moments for the year.
From her sonic experimentation on 1993's Debut, Bjork has been considered an important artist with sensibilities that leaned towards the acquired. Her passionate, nerve-shattering vocal has been the beginning and end to her albums, but after 2001's lustful Vespertine, with the vocals-only Medulla, the electro-pop of Volta, and the electric shock of Biophilia, the compositions grew static and she lost touch with much of her audience. For Vulnicura, though, she has retained the experimental sensibilities and tapped into the universal feelings of pain and suffering. These nine songs aren't easy to sit through, but she trains her lens through unusual melodies and gloomy electronics for an all-encompassing experience (c'mon, this is an album you experience, when can I say that about an album these days?). The polar opposite of Vespertine and perfectly recalling the sounds of Homogenic, she places herself on a different plane than anything else she's accomplished.
She weaves electronics, strings, human voices, deep bass and drums that serve as a gateway to her insides because of the deep wound found on the cover. On "Stonemilker", she sings in her rich tone "I wish to synchronize our feelings/Find our mutual coordinates," which points the focus inward towards a relationship she feels is broken. As her voice floats amongst clouds of programming effects on "Lionsong," she sings clearly "Maybe he will come out of this, maybe he won't/Somehow I'm not bothered, either way". Next to her partner, she admits on "History of Touches" that this might be the last time they are together. The absence of bass gives this track a fragility, as if she's speaking these words in her mind in real time. "Black Lake" is the most impressive piece, which is one of seven tracks the up-and-coming producer Arca helped her produce. The flashes of chaos and fluency in his solo work are toned down for this mammoth of a track, which swells through sections of chaos, warmth, and, ultimately, catharsis, and her vocals rise to the occasion. As upsetting as this music is, the song is a pure pleasure to be a part of and commands whatever room the listener is occupying.
Written as a trilogy, Vulnicura's nine tracks, most of which run past the 6-minute mark, document the beginning, middle, and end to her grief. The astonishing "Black Lake" introduces the middle trio, which is followed by "Family". Co-produced with Arca and ambient producer The Haxan Cloak, the swirls of vocal chanting and discordant strings and electronics are the musical backdrop against another seamless vocal where Bjork sings of the broken, "miraculous triangle" of her family. Honestly, at this point, "breakup album" feels like an understatement: Vulnicura is a force of nature. She becomes more intimate with her wound as the last trio unfolds, featuring a provocative vocal by indie rock's Antony Hegarty on "Atom Dance". By the end of "Quicksand", she has embraced "the steam" from the "black lake" inside of her and intones "When we're broken, we are whole/And when we're whole, we're broken," thereby introducing a new stage in her life. She has welcomed her weakness and the wound has made her stronger. While this isn't a new sentiment to come across, the musically daring leaps made on this album complicate such thoughts.
The dedication to craft on her latest effort results in a powerful statement of triumph over adversity, which speaks to her heartbreak as much as it does her artistic output. The loops, effects, cellos, and soaring violins on Vulnicura, the operatic characteristics of her vocal and the arrangements, the nakedness and honesty of the lyrics are the result of an artist finally pushing herself far enough to create a nuanced work that is unmistakably hers as well as timeless. That's a big, adult word to use, but Bjork has found a new freedom in her artistry that could fit in any decade. She has returned.