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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Björk: Vulnicura

BJÖRK: VULNICURA (2015)

1) Stonemilker; 2) Lionsong; 3) History Of Touches; 4) Black Lake; 5) Family; 6) Notget; 7) Atom Dance; 8) Mouth Mantra; 9) Quicksand.

In recent years, I have adopted a very harsh rating strategy towards «breakup albums» that seem to be more than simply «all the rage» in the modern world — no, really, these days, whatever passes for a «serious» work of popular art almost necessarily has to be about The Magnificent Art Of Breaking Up. People come together, so it seems, merely for the sake of falling apart and then chronicling their suffering in their own, highly individual way. I mean, goddammit, what about starving children in Africa? The evils of offshore drilling? The questions of our purpose on this planet? The verification of the Big Bang Theory? Does it all have to be judged through the prism of «me and him/her, we're no longer together and boy does it hurt»? Additionally, if it does hurt, why the heck did you have to break up in the first place? Couldn't it be, you know, just because you're both arrogant idiots who value personality clashes and «turf battles» over compromises? And now you're using this as a pretext to paint awesome vagina-shaped wounds on your chests? Gimme a fuckin' break, already.

To be fair, there is no reason even in 2015 why a breakup should not be painful, or why it should not be possible to write a heartbreaking song or even an entire album about a breakup. But with breakup stories now coming at a dime a dozen (almost literally so), I am finding myself, for in­stance, more and more desensitized towards these works unless they happen to contain some truly stunning melodic inventions (Adele's 21, for instance, counts as a happy exception from the rule). And it is hardly a coincidence that Björk's personal breakup album just happens to be her least musically interesting album in ages. Where Medúlla was at least arrogantly adventurous, Volta was at least moderately catchy, and Biophilia was at least a curious exercise in «scientific music-making», Vulnicura is simply «Björk's breakup album», no more, no less.

With nine tracks stretched out to a whole hour's length, the lady is busy here telling us her story, using a standard form of Old Literary Björkese: lush, brooding, slightly dissonant string arrange­ments, fussy-fuzzy electronic beats, and her own trademark «operatic» singing that eschews conventional verse/chorus structures and removes any structural limitations on rhythm, rhyme, and harmonic coordination — a style that originally emerged on Homogenic but arguably reached its apex with Medúlla and, since then, pretty much became the «default» form of Björkese, a respectable establishment that no longer holds any major surprises.

Mood-wise, the only thing that differentiates these tracks from each other are (a) the length and (b) the occasional gimmick, such as the use of Björk's old musical friend, a vocally chopped-up Antony Hegarty, on ʽAtom Danceʼ. People have called this album «dark» and «depressing» and «brutally honest» and all sorts of other nice clichés, almost as if implying that here, first time in years if not ever, we finally get to see The Real Björk (who, as it incidentally turns out, just hap­pens to be vagina-chested as a genetic birth defect), but this is just bullshit: first, all of these songs taken together do not have a tenth part of the darkness of ʽHunterʼ or ʽBacheloretteʼ, and second, how is this «the real Björk» when this is so stylistically undistinguishable from her earlier work? Compare ʽCome Togetherʼ with ʽWorking Class Heroʼ and see «the real Lennon», or ʽJust Like Tom Thumb's Bluesʼ and ʽSimple Twist Of Fateʼ and see «the real Dylan» — these compa­risons could at least be understandable. Vulnicura is just as much of a grand symbolist spectacle as anything else the Icelandic national heroine ever put out. The question is not whether she is being «real» or not (oh, but come on now, it's a breakup album, how can a breakup album not be real, have a frickin' heart, Mr. Reviewer!): the question is — how attractive, how seductive, how captivating, how breathtaking can that spectacle be, regardless of how «real» it is?

For many people, so it seems, including miriads of slobbering reviewers and admiring fans, it can be all of these things and more — pages after pages of glowing discussions are dedicated to descriptions of how dissonant strings and electronics can so perfectly convey the process of «emotional healing». Maybe all these people have recently gone through breakups as well, and are able to better empathize than myself. Maybe I have really been too desensitized and biased to let the magic of musical healing flow through my own veins. But the fact of the matter is that, at best, I perceive this all as a monotonous atmospheric current of tolerable, occasionally pleasant (for those ears that had already become accustomed to Björkese), but completely unmemorable and, worse, unimpressive music, without dynamics, but with lots of pseudo-subtle subtleties that may create an illusion of «depth» and «complexity» that is really not there at all.

For those reasons, I will not be talking about any individual tracks. Formally, their melodies are different, their tempos have a certain range (usually from «slow» to «very slow»), their instru­mentation has some variety, but I know few words to describe these nuances, and my senses are not sharp enough to immediately and actively pick up on these varieties once they arise. You may, if you happen to «love» this album rather than just «like» it, criticize me for being too shallow and stubbornly refusing to give it a chance, but I think I know what I am talking about here — the difference between Vulnicura and, say, Homogenic for me symbolizes all the difference be­tween «quality music» in the 1990s, when intelligence, complexity, and subtlety could still carry real intellectual and emotional meaning, and «quality music» in the 2010s, where «form», as a rule, replaces «substance», and all we get are hollow, formalistic re-runs of past grandeur.

Ironically, I cannot even say that Björk fails here because she is now an «old fart», or because she has lost her genius, ran out of creative steam etc. etc. On the contrary, Vulnicura reflects her amazing capacity to adapt — like Madonna for the world of «cheap entertainment», Björk is very well aware of the changing surroundings, and almost every new product of hers (Volta might be a bit of an exception) is totally en vogue. No, she fails exactly because she is doing here what she is expected to be doing in 2015, as mannerisms and lack of substance are supposed to be taking the place of genuinely deep, sharp-cutting music. And everything here counts as mannerism, right down to the unforgettable "every single fuck we had together" on ʽHistory Of Touchesʼ — a sen­sual exhortation that is really as hollow and meaningless as everything else on here.

Naturally, this is all my personal opinion, and naturally, I cannot exclude that sometime in the future, something on this record will click — as it happens now, each subsequent listen only ended up irritating me more and more. How did that one go? "I've seen what I was and I know what I'll be, I've seen it all, there is no more to see...". Total thumbs down — I have no time, interest, or patience for such generic, by-the-book Björkese.

19 comments:

  1. For me. she was a self-serving brat from the beginning, rather than a genuine eccentric artist. So this is no surprise.

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    1. If ever a nick was properly chosen...

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    2. C'mon, c'mon... you all (incl. George) are just infatuated with the cuddly pixie image. In fact she is just an annoying, screeching, talentless bint.

      Whoever dumped her, ex-lover or ex-fan, whatever, saw the light of the day.

      Worthless artist, that would be already forgotten, hadn't the soundspace been contaminated with her mental excrement every couple of years, or so.

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    3. Simplius = Idiot

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    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    5. Yup, that's the influence of Bjork. Like artist, like fans. Solipsists.

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    6. Leave me out of it, I've never been a fan, I lost interest in Björk's doings about 15 years ago, 'Dancer in the Dark' triggered that. But that never meant that I lost my respect for what she had done until this (in my opinion) 'singer want to act'-stupidity. My point is: there has been an artistic value to what she has done. Same with R.E.M. just up to the moment Bill Berry quit. From then on: downhill all the way, but up to this point they put out some really good music way before MTV picked them up and on heavy rotation.
      I can fully understand a certain kind of hatred towards Björk, but as long as your ranting is just personal hatred and has got nothing to do with her music it's just doesn't matter.
      Although it is very funny that you of all people come up with Solipsism, wouldn't wanna have missed that.

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    7. "just personal hatred and has got nothing to do with her music"

      Right, my annoyance has nothing to do with what she peddles as music. It has to do with her art of knitting the Icelandic sweaters.

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    8. Simplius, we get it. You hate Björk. I don't know what you think you're accomplishing by roaming George's reviews and spewing the same vitriol over and over again.

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    9. Hi Sammy,

      This revered, ahem, artist, deserves to be demolished and deconstructed in a same manner that the good ole retired Mark Prindle did to the revered Joni Mitchell.

      I'm glad George finally got to the point I have all these years, but after listening the last offering: "Occasionally pleasant, but completely unmemorable and, worse, unimpressive music, without dynamics, but with lots of pseudo-subtle subtleties that may create an illusion of «depth» and «complexity»"

      This describes my conclusion since the Debut. But because I am, as my good old nemesis Anonymous said, idiot, I couldn't express it and find better words than George.

      Until now. In short: BANAL

      Banal turd, then polished.

      Best regards.

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    10. I know Mark Prindle, and you, sir, are no Mark Prindle.

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    11. Lame try, anonymous hero. Now we're talking about me, not about the screaming auk in question?

      BTW, I have neither time, nor patience, ambition, and, I admit, talent to write reviews. Let alone to mimic someone else.

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  2. George likes pop music. When Bjork leaves the realms of pop George disses... Poor George.

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    1. You're an idiot. Even if you somehow ignore the giant honkin' Boris review currently on the front page (or the Bardo Pond ones, and these are just the two most extreme cases), he says in this review that he has more respect for both Medúlla and Biophilia, and those are ten times less "pop" than Vulnicura is.

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  3. I have to say, George, I do think that you've been too cynical in your apprehension of this album.

    If it's a stylistic regression, it's only because it's Björk's first album since... oh, Vespertine, really, that hasn't been an active, overt experiment. It's not as if Medúlla or Biophilia or even Volta had ever been intended as serious reform, and why should she have distracted from her album's main focus with yet another experimental conceit when it would have been seen as "Björk's latest gimmick" anyway?

    And on the flipside of that, it actually isn't more of the same stuff that she'd been doing up to 2004. If the style is rooted in that older period, the material that it's applied to is divorced from the past in equal measure. Far from the fiery "pixie" figure that you allude to in your reviews of those earlier albums, the Björk of Vulnicura has become a fairy queen, equally fantastic, but as deliberate as the previous Björk was capricious. And when have her subjects ever been so concrete and unified before? Everything prior (even up to Biophilia) was a tangle of abstractions, isolated observations, and fairy tales - I don't understand how you can point to those Lennon and Dylan comparisons and then call Vulnicura "undistinguishable" [sic] from Björk's past work, given that it fits the exact same model. (Takes it even further, too, since those guys didn't drag every damn track out between six and ten lugubrious minutes.)

    Nothing is as dark as "Bachelorette" because nothing is a deliberate theatrical exercise in darkness like "Bachelorette" - the woman's sadness is deep, but she's far too mature at 50 to wail and gnash her teeth. Vulnicura is not so much dark as it is melancholy, and it's so consummately melancholy that I'm genuinely perplexed by your indifference. Didn't Sea-Change win your favor? Musically, Vulnicura's no less monotonous or unmemorable, but it also equals it in emotional conviction and sheer superficial prettiness, so why is the Beck "one of the decade's greatest artistic successes" (your words) and the Björk a white elephant?

    Hell, if you're going to shun it, at least shun it for being a big fat self-pitying self-righteous self-indulgent Breakup Album. It would make more sense than this weird idea that it's somehow a Björk-by-numbers product masquerading as one.

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  4. Fellows, please, first of all, even a negative Björk review is no good excuse to call each other names. Everybody's entitled to one's own perspective and opinions - it's just music.

    Second, in response to the last comment: I quite agree with the assessment, and these are the exact reasons why I dismiss the album. Björk as "capricious pixie" suits me fine, but this new "maturity" has not resulted in anything that captivates or stimulates. That the record is concrete and unified, or that it is melancholic, or that it is non-gimmicky, is not an advantage or flaw per se, but as far as I see it, unification here resolves into boredom, melancholy resolves into monotonousness, and lack of gimmickry resolves into "same old dough, but without the cream on top". And yes, this is coming from someone who continues to regard Vespertine as one of the most wonderful albums of the 21st century.

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    1. Oh, fair enough. I guess that my real question is why these things make Vulnicura bad when it seems that you single out the same elements as Sea Change's strengths. As far as I see it, the two albums are very close cousins - to the point that Vulnicura has outright usurped Morning Phase's place as a "sequel" for me.

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  5. You have to be a die-hard Björk fan to love this. As innovative or unusual as it may be, it's still boring as hell for non-fans.

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  6. You have to be a die-hard Björk fan to love this. As innovative or unusual as it may be, it's still boring as hell for non-fans.

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