To hear her tell it, Björk struggled to keep her relationship with artist Matthew Barney alive. Toward the end, she fretted over how and when to approach him. If she had any fault, it was feeling too much, being too invested in their relationship, trying too hard. Barney was closed-off, distant, fatalistic, and moody. He abandoned her and their child together, and betrayed his own heart.
This is what I've gleaned from Vulnicura, Björk's highly personal, just-released ninth solo studio album. Per her explicit statement, Vulnicura chronicles the end and aftermath of her relationship with Barney, which lasted more than a decade. The album's songs are chronologically ordered, labeled "nine months before" to "11 months after" (the last three songs have no such timestamp but seem to continue on the subject of the outcome). On Vulnicura, Björk presents herself as a saint (check out the fuzzy halo around her on the album art work) and a superhero ("How will I sing us out of this sorrow / Build a safe bridge for the child out of this danger?" she wonders on "Family"). We don't get any sense of what she contributed to the breakup—what we're privy to are her reactions to his shortcomings. Vulnicura is ostensibly a warts-and-all purging of emotion, except it turns out that the only warts we actually get to see are Barney's.
And that bugs me. It's one thing to write an angry love song—feeling wronged and powerless and spiteful is a pattern of emotions that many people experience at some point, for however long—but it's another thing to write nine. As more details amass over the course of Vulnicura, Björk's accountability becomes a glaring omission. Vulnicura is emotional and raw, but that's nothing new for Björk's work (when you read "emotional," I hope you pronounced it "uh-eeeee-MO-shun-uhhuhhul" in your head). Vulnicura's narrative, when it is intelligible, relies on the me-good-him-bad trope that suggests a lack of perspective and ensures a lack of depth.
Vulnicura is Björk dabbling in the medium of the break-up album, which sounds more tantalizing on paper than it functions in practice. When I think about the history of breakup albums, the ones that I admire achieve humanity through the admission of fault, the acknowledgement that just as it takes two people to build a relationship, it takes two people to dismantle one. Think "River" on Joni Mitchell's Blue ("I'm so hard to handle I'm selfish and I'm sad / Now I've gone and lost the best baby / That I ever had I wish I had a river / I could skate away on"). Think back to the truth bombs on Marvin Gaye's acidic Here, My Dear (from "Time To Get It Together": "I've been racing against time / Trying my best to find my way / Change our world in just one day / Blowin' coke all up my nose / Gettin' in and out my clothes / Foolin' 'round with midnight hoes / But that chapter of life's closed"). Even someone as self-righteous as Kanye West saw fit to admit, "I know I did some things but that's the old me" (from 808 & Heartbreak's "Heartless").
In contrast, we have the whiny one-sidedness of Coldplay's Ghost Stories. Though it's not an album, an even worse portrayal of celebrity uncoupling could be found in Katy Perry's toothless 2012 documentary Part of Me. In that, her breakup with Russell Brand was portrayed as a result of his negligence. We get the sense that he has stopped visiting her on tour, they have an off-camera conversation, she cries in her dressing room, and then sucks it up and performs anyway. And after slaying the dragon, Perry continues to perpetuate her own heroism by sharing her lopsided story with the world so that everyone can shake their heads at what an asshole Brand was to her. A narrative is a powerful weapon if you hold it right.
I absolutely hate how much Björk reminds me of Katy Perry right now, especially because Björk has repeatedly proven capable of examining her own flaws throughout her career—Vespertine's "Unison" ostensibly tells the story about how Björk had to get over herself ("Born stubborn, me / Will always be…") to enter this relationship with Barney in the first place.
It seems particularly irresponsible to tell a story so one-sidedly when we know exactly whom she is talking about. Now: Maybe Matthew Barney is just a fucking dick. Maybe he treated Björk like shit, letting their time together taper off in a manner that felt like an assault—apathy translated to cruelty somewhere along the line of communication. Maybe during the last nine months of their relationship, this person that Björk loved for more than 10 years transformed while Björk remained Björk. Maybe. Seems unlikely, but either way Vulnicura isn't offering answers.
That alone seems fishy—throughout the album Björk prides herself on her communication aptitude ("What is it that I have / That makes me feel your pain? / Like milking a stone / To get you to say it") and yet she is unmistakably withholding from us. Singer-to-audience is a different dynamic than lover-to-lover, sure, but I think part of what we're supposed to be impressed by here is a depth that just doesn't exist. Vulnicura is a cursory purging that is less vulnerable than it lets on.
That is particularly detrimental to an album that's consistently impenetrable. Vulnicura favors visceral hooks over melodic ones—few will find themselves able to get down to a 5/4 time signature, fewer will be able to remember a single tune from the album's especially difficult and meandering second half, but most people experience a breakup at some point. For 2011's Biophilia, Björk developed an app that served to explain its consistently baffling contents, song-by-song; on Vulnicura the key in is universal experience (with bouquets of emotionally on-the-nose, cinematic strings strewn about, for good measure).
Björk is less interested than ever in writing pop songs (two of nine Vulnicura tracks have what could be deemed a chorus), which is a shame because her great gift is the ability to be accessible and alien at the same time. Vulnicura is largely lacking the payoff of Björk's most challenging work—we get some self-conscious beauty (album opener "Stonemilker" turns slowly in the mirror to show off its gorgeousness and finishes with a minute-long coda of weeping strings), we get an honest-to-goodness bridge once (in "Lionsong"), but we also get a lot of melodic tangents, beats generated alongside former FKA twigs collaborator Arca that are too subdued to leave much aesthetic impression, and lyrics that are either agonizingly banal ("I wish to synchronize our feelings") or just impossible to make heads or tails of ("I am fine-tuning my soul / To the universal wavelength / No one is a lover alone / I propose an atom dance").
If it were fashion, Vulnicura just wouldn't be wearable. How many people who rushed to praise this work last week when Björk sopped up its leak with a digital rush-release will still be listening to it in a month? A week? Tomorrow? Who in their right mind would elect to listen to "Notget" over even the weakest Homogenic track ("Immature," in my estimation, and there's another one that just happens to be brimming with humility). This entire project is worth experiencing precisely once if for nothing else than to soak in Björk's idea of a break-up album (and "Stonemilker" is legitimately lovely, even if its jogging beat is reminiscent of "Chariots of Fire"), but it is indulgent on practically every front. As a diehard Björk fan, I see how we got here and in my infinitesimal way, I encouraged the indulgence with my patronage. At and around her peak (Homogenic), it felt like each project was an entry into the depths of her imagination, and being allowed in felt like an honor. Now I'm not so sure whether the communication breakdown described at the beginning of Vulnicura was more of a cause of her relationship's demise or a symptom of a bigger problem.