You’ve heard this one before — and, mark my words, it’ll start to sound like a broken record as the year progresses. A tweet or e-mail goes out, it spreads like wildfire, and suddenly it’s news: We have a new album by [insert Beyoncé, D’Angelo, Azealia Banks, Madonna here].
Björk is the latest pop musician to eschew convention by releasing her new record seemingly out of the blue. “Vulnicura” had been scheduled for a March release, but after it leaked last week, the quixotic Icelandic singer-songwriter put the whole thing on iTunes on Tuesday.
It was so sudden, in fact, that the album wasn’t available in the US iTunes store until late that night. The physical release, on CD and vinyl, is still set for March, the same month that New York’s Museum of Modern Art will launch a retrospective exhibition devoted to Björk’s chameleonic career.
From a marketing perspective, the sneak attack for “Vulnicura” worked. If we’re being honest, it’s been a while since we have so openly, so collectively cared about a new Björk album. That’s not to say she hasn’t warranted the attention, but she simply hasn’t commanded it the way she has this week.
As expected, her ninth studio effort is a dense tangle of mercurial melodies, warped song structures, and lyrics that scan as private letters. In both the songwriting and production phases, Björk collaborated with Arca, a rising Venezuelan producer, and the British musician who goes by the name the Haxan Cloak, while composing the string arrangements herself.
She has talked about how this album naturally morphed into a statement about heartbreak, following the end of her long relationship with American artist Matthew Barney. She is surprisingly linear in her storytelling, reliving their union’s arc in a series of play-by-play vignettes. This is a surround-sound breakup album told in devastating detail.
That shift inward is remarkable, and even brave, for an artist like Björk. Her last studio album, 2011’s “Biophilia,” was a broad look at the universe and its intersection with technology. So when we hear her so baldly putting herself up-front on a piece like “Lionsong,” it feels like a seismic revelation, something entirely new from someone we thought we already knew.
“Once it was simple/ One feeling at a time/ It reached its peak then transformed,” she sings. “Maybe he will come out of this loving me,” goes the chorus before adding a wounded aside, “Maybe he won’t.”
As opening missives go, “Stonemilker” is another sucker punch to the gut, straight to the point as if marking the start of a diary entry. “Moments of clarity are so rare,” she sings. “I better document this/ At last the view is fierce/ All that matters is.” And then, amid a swell of strings and ambient beats and a grand sweep in Björk’s voice, the song digs into its emotional core:
Who is open-chested
And who has coagulated?
Who can share and
Who has shot down the chances?
By album’s end — and with nine songs lumbering toward an hour, “Vulnicura” is a heavy listen — the artist has found her footing. She makes it clear on the closing “Quicksand” that it has been a rough road that still hasn’t smoothed out. But salvation is within sight: “When I’m broken, I am whole/ And when I’m whole, I’m broken.”