If those albums were extravagant exercises in avoiding the issue at hand, their followup tackles it head-on. Vulnicura chronicles the end of Björk's relationship with her longtime partner, Matthew Barney. Björk has rarely been this lyrically blunt, and she has emptied out her musical toolbox accordingly. Gone are the fantastical instruments of Biophilia, the patchwork pop arrangements of Volta, the musique concréte of Vespertine. It's as if she's wound all the way back to 1997's Homogenic, where rich strings and glitchy beats butted against each other like inexperienced kissers. Vulnicura is Homogenic Part II in subtler ways as well: the stately chord progression of "Stonemilker" echoes Homogenic's "Unravel," for instance, and both albums feature severe portraits of Björk on the cover.
It might seem odd that such an overhaul has resulted in Björk's best album in years. After all, from one perspective it's a sort of climbdown from ambitious, formally inventive projects to more traditional tools and topics. Then again, this is what Björk has always done best: hyperballads, songs that take pop convention to wonderful extremes of euphoria and despair. When she sings, "My soul torn apart / My spirit is broken" over cascades of violins, she's voicing a sentiment that's sounded insufferably trite a thousand times before. Here, it's anything but.
Björk, of course, likes an invented word or two, and "Vulnicura" might be a portmanteau of "vulnerability" and "curative." This album exposes the former in search of the latter. Two thirds of it chronicle the breakup in sequence, while the final three tracks grapple with the outcome. The album's centrepiece is the three-part "Family." We start in an ashen landscape courtesy of the Haxan Cloak, all glowering percussion and oily strings, and finish with a qualified sort of redemption. In between, Björk questions the effectiveness of her own art, asking, "How will I sing us out of this sorrow?" With its songs dated like diary entries, Vulnicura often feels like a meta-album—an album about the process, and the necessity, of addressing these events through music.
But it's also simply an album with a story to tell. This narrative thread seems to have focussed Björk's compositional powers, and Vulnicura has a momentum and coherence lacking in her recent efforts. Perhaps surprisingly, Arca, the album's chief collaborator, only plays a secondary role in this. Elsewhere he's displayed a knack for sonic extravagance, and for warping the boundaries between the natural and the unnatural. Here, the beats remain very much in their lane, held apart from the mostly unprocessed voice and strings.
As with Homogenic before it, this careful distancing can feel unsatisfying. On "Black Lake," Björk's strings form implacable pools of sound, while Arca's percussion blossoms from near-silence to industrial techno throb. The two processes feel distinct, never quite working in harmony. Elsewhere, Björk's tendency to meander can get the better of her, as it does on "Atom Dance," which returns to the figurative language of Biophilia. Some tracks, like "Mouth Mantra," simply feel overcrowded. The Haxan Cloak, who mixed the album, struggles to find clarity in busier moments.
But the story, visceral and tragic, transcends these imperfections in the telling. In "History Of Touches," Björk wakes up in the middle of the night, "Feeling this is our last time together." She sees "Every single touch… Every single fuck… In a wondrous timelapse." It's hard not to think of the coital bliss of 2002's "Cocoon," written around the start of Björk's relationship with Barney. Only now we're seeing a decade's worth of "Cocoon"s telescoped into one, with the knowledge that they'll never be reclaimed.