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.