In recent times, Björk’s music has tended to favor a global (if not interstellar) perspective. But from song one on Vulnicura, the Icelandic innovator makes it clear she’s created an album rooted in a very specific, personal matter: her now-splintered relationship with artist Matthew Barney. “Show me emotional respect/I have emotional needs,” she implores on the string-adorned “Stonemilker.”
Of course, this being Björk, calling this collection a “breakup record” both oversimplifies things and undermines the sophistication of her songwriting. The album’s first six songs are a complex, elegant cycle examining her mental and physical state before and after the breakup. Bitter barbs, flashes of doubt and indifference, and memories of better times quickly give way to crumpled anguish, grief about her lost family and, ultimately, acceptance. The last third of Vulnicura focuses on moving on—how she rediscovered her own voice and sense of self (“Mouth Mantra”) and stayed strong for her daughter (“Quicksand”).
Björk wraps this precise language with music that emphasizes striking textures over linear structures: intricate string arrangements, futuristic synth zaps, eerie electronic programming and nuanced singing that conjure Homogenic’s melodic contortions. The album’s most captivating moment might be its fulcrum, the sprawling “Family,” which has co-production from The Haxan Cloak and Kanye West producer Arca. Warped-sounding electro ambience, reedy orchestras and Björk’s criss-crossed vocals combine to convey despair over her family’s changes. As a song like that underscores, Vulnicura’s beauty—and agony—stem from the record’s attention to detail and defiant vulnerability.