In her new song ‘Stone Milket’, Björk sings “Maybe he will come/ maybe he won’t/ somehow, I’m not bothered either way…I refuse/ (it’s a sign of maturity)/ to be stuck in complexity”.
The Guardian and The New Yorker are in agreement over who is the greatest pop star ever: Beyoncé. She is “arguably the greatest live performer of the past 10 years” and “the logical end point of a century-plus of pop.” She’s also emerged as a champion for empowerment of women. Fair enough, Beyoncé is great. But is she a “logical end point” to pop music? I’m not so convinced. Especially not now, having listened to Vulnicura, the immensely personal new album from Icelandic songwriter Björk. She is the avant-darling of the era: adored so much in her home country that she has her own island, revered by critics and musicians alike, and the subject of intense scrutiny by listeners, who often can’t put their finger on what makes her so compelling.
In The New Yorker’s defence, they did levy that praise on Beyoncé in 2013, which was just before Arca emerged to permanently alter the landscape of pop by working with two female artists that dare to be different: FKA Twigs on LP1, and now Björk. On Vulnicura, Arca takes a back-seat role, embellishing Björk’s vision with considerable constraint. If you love music that starts a conversation rather than a party (or before), then Björk should be your pop hero of the century. Every second of this album is delivered with self-confidence, backed by an incredible singing voice.
The album is far from flawless. It’s dense, and near impossible to enjoy in company. It eschews all pop tropes, and instead relies on frank, enunciated feelings and classical progressions to convey the intense emotional content. But what makes Vulnicura so compelling? When I tried to listen to the album in my kitchen, the sparse instrumentation and structural frailty made the album difficult to take in. In a quiet room, alone, an entirely new dimension was revealed. ‘Lion Song’ and ‘History of Touches’ are the album’s most straightforward cuts, and Björk bravely lays her unique voice over silence as well as the digital symphony of strings and computer blips that will come to define the album musically.
The lyrical narrative wavers as much as the sonics do. Passages of clarity are juxtaposed against dissonance, such as the transition from ‘Not Get’ to ‘Tom Dance’, where Björk rants hatefully before declaring, “we are each other’s hemispheres”, in a beautiful left turn. It makes sense that such a highly personal project would demand a highly personal listening experience to go with it.