This week delivered a wonderful surprise in the form of a brand new album by Björk. Despite not being scheduled for release until March, thanks to pesky internet hackers, it was unveiled online with little notice on Tuesday evening. The result is Vulnicura – a complex, challenging album that delves into the intricacies of the breakdown of Björk’s relationship with her partner of ten years. Compared to the distinctly non-personal, rational record that was 2011’s Biophilia, a concept album exploring the links between music, nature and technology, Vulnicura is striking by its uncensored intimacy. Sonically, it may be Björk’s richest album to date. Different sounds are layered over intricate beats, creating songs that are deep, multifaceted and often, difficult to digest. Initially, I wanted to write a review of the album, but I don’t think I could quite do it justice. It feels so big and so complex that I think it will take a while for me to really get to grips with it.
Instead, never missing a chance to recruit new people to the church of Björk, I decided to write a short guide for those unfortunate people who have not yet seen the light. One of the great things about Björk is that she is so experimental, constantly changing her image and her sound, that during her career, she has covered a vast amount of musical ground. This means that whether you’re a fan of strings or synths, guitars or the avant-garde, there is a Björk for you.
Björk does rock
Back in the late 80s, Björk fronted the alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, which was essentially, by her own admission, a group of mates taking the piss. Unexpectedly, the group gathered some international fame, and went on to become fairly successful. Though not as punky as Björk’s previous band, KUKL, The Sugarcubes had a unique sound, blending poppy tunes with guitars and bursts of spoken word poetry courtesy of Einar Örn. The aptly-named Hit became the group’s most successful single, but this track, Regina, is my favourite thanks to its wonderfully catchy chorus.
Björk does pop
Though she’s now best known for being experimental and subversive, back in the mid-nineties, Björk had a string of UK hit singles. Unlike her later output, they had a distinctly poppy, dancey feel and were played on the radio. But this was still pop on Björk’s own terms. I Miss You, a song about feeling a sort of reverse nostalgia for someone that one hasn’t even met, is a fun, danceable tune with the type of chorus that Björk abandoned in the early 2000s. If you like pop in its purest, most creative form, this is the Björk for you.
Björk does strings
On her third solo album after the demise of The Sugarcubes, Homogenic, Björk replaced the electronic feel of her previous efforts with a more organic sound. The intricate beats are still present, but now they’re accompanied by vast string arrangements, marrying the two styles in an unusual but ingenious matrimony. This is seen best on the magnificent Jóga, a spellbinding swirl of strings and what Björk has described as “volcanic beats” that echo the vast, rocky landscape of her homeland. Jóga is a love letter to Iceland, and there was no one better to write it.
Björk does heartbreak
There are only a handful of songs that have reduced me to tears, but this is one of them. ‘Raw’ doesn’t quite seem to do justice to the vocal performance Björk gives on So Broken, which she performed on Later… with Jools Holland. The song is about the end of a relationship, though it was actually born from even more tragic circumstances. While writing for the Homogenic album, an obsessed fan videotaped himself committing suicide while listening to her music, also sending her a letter bomb in an attempt to assassinate her. In the midst of the ensuing media furore, Björk found comfort writing what is perhaps her most melodramatic song, which was inspired by Spanish soap operas.
Björk does politics
Declare Independence is a loud, abrasive, unforgiving hurricane of a song, battering the listener with its increasingly frantic drone. The music was originally written by Mark Bell before Björk added the lyrics, giving the song a distinctly political slant. During live performances, the track has been dedicated to a number of places, including Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Kosovo and Tibet, much to the ire of the Chinese authorities. A relentless roar of defiance in the face of the colonists, Declare Independence sees Björk at her wild, passionate best.