Playing The Real: Performance and Reception in Björk's Vulnicura
Posted on Tuesday, 17 March 2015 | No Comments
Or: the show of emotional respect.
Albums leak nowadays: unless you are a Jay-Z figure capable of wielding the clout (and, more significantly, the money) to keep all involved in lock-down, your album will leak at some point. If you are fortunate, it might slip out just a few days before release, by which point thirty different websites are promoting the 'exclusive' stream your record company gave them anyway. If you are unfortunate though, well, you must be Björk. To have your album leak over two months in advance of release, necessitating a mad scramble to put out a face-saving digital rush-release, especially when your new album is one that comes accompanied with the same kind of baggage as Vulnicura does - well, that's downright cruel.
The possible upshot of all this is that Vulnicura, finally released in physical format as originally intended, lands as the most acclaimed and discussed release of Björk's since Vespertine. Across the board, early reviews have hailed it as a dramatic return to form after the intriguing if patchy Volta and the curious Biophilia, an album which seemed almost an afterthought to the ambitious live performances and technological initiatives surrounding it, a critical euphoria in direct contrast to the foreboding, devastated work lying within the record. However messy the roll-out might have become, the discourse surrounding Vulnicura has turned it into one of the major event releases of 2015: compare the amount of news articles and column inches that Vulnicura has racked up compared to Madonna's even more messed-around Rebel Heart campaign, unfortunate stage mishaps notwithstanding. This is an album that people seem compelled to talk about, to profess their fealty for as a sign of - well, what exactly? A simple symbol of Björk fandom? An act of symbolic feminist solidarity? A need to fit into the trending conversations?
Before we go further, it is worth nothing that this writer would agree with the consensus that Vulnicura is indeed a superb piece of work, one of considerable compositional boldness and ingenuity that confirms the rather singular and hallowed place that Björk continues to hold within our popular culture. The bold string arrangements of hers, placed in front of the intricate beats she produced alongside her new collaborator Arca, read on a superficial level as an update of the aesthetic used on her high water-mark Homogenic. If that was an inherently futuristic statement, an album that married ornate traditionalism to cutting-edge dance production as a statement artistic and personal evolution, Vulnicura returns to similar sonic ground to lick wounds, to attempt a renegotiation with the traumas of adult life from a place of safety and familiarity. Of course, there is still enough new on a sonic level to keep things fresh: Arca brings a fresh dynamic to the distinct beat-making style that Björk has carved out for herself, while the sheer length and drama of songs like Black Lake and Family push far further into the abyss than she has ever gone before.
However, Björk now finds herself at the point of her career that other great auteurs before her such as David Bowie, Prince or Kate Bush invariably find themselves at where it becomes more of a matter of playing with an established aesthetic rather than the ceaseless movement that had once been expected. (This in itself is not necesarily a bad thing: Kate Bush's post-millennial work has made a quiet virtue of just quietly expanding her borders of her known universe after all.) The major distinguishing factor is not 'oh look, The Haxan Cloak did half a beat' or 'not many singles, are there?', but in its commitment to maintaining a visceral atmosphere of grieving and heartbreak throughout. The album starts as a car crash occurring in the slowest possible motion: even when it reaches a kind of resolution, catharsis is kept absent from the scene and the story breaks off before any neat conclusion is possible - the scars presented within remain too deep, too grievous for a simple flash of the wand to cure. It's this single-minded intensity that's at once Vulnicura's greatest strength and the very thing that keeps pushing the listener away.
Yes, there is little doubt about the personal nature of Vulnicura. This insularity, at its best, produces some brutal and hard-hitting stuff: the short, burbling History of Touches, offers some brief respite from the oncoming storm - a reprise that its narrator is aware is all too brief, that is experienced in the past tense even as it happens - and may well be the most affecting thing on here. The reason History of Touches works so well though is that there is no biographical knowledge is needed to function, no backstory that has to be referred to for it to function. It just paints a brief, vivid sketch of two adults struggling against the end, and allows the listener to adapt to their own needs. There’s a stretch during the middle of the album however when everything is allowed to get just too on the nose – Black Lake veers from the overwrought poetry of a teenage goth to a bunch of allusions that, ultimately, can only really be understood by one particular listener (“You fear my limitless emotions / I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions”), while even as Family attempts to “sing us out of this sorrow”, the listener is confronted with an accumulation of offerings, grievings and getting down on one’s knees that even Martin Gore might find a bit much. Notget can succeed as a kind of Grand Guignol take on the breakup: any literal reading of it is likely to induce wincing.
It’s that line about singing out of sorrow that strikes at the core of the matter. The great contradiction at the core of Vulnicura is the tension between a supposed reality and the performance of it. Björk is not about to ditch the costumes and do a bare singer-songwriter album – and besides, who would want that? Her unique visual eye, her interest in new sounds and technological possibilities: these have been two of her great artistic assets that have made her such an important figure. These things are still present in this latest work, and provide the most successful and enjoyable moments here – the great skittering rhythms that fuel Quicksand or the swooping Antony duet Atom Dance, the meta-narration of grand opener Stonemilker – but also throw some shade on the more ‘for real’ content within. There’s certainly ways of doing an overly dramatic performance that retains an impact: the aforementioned Gore, at his best, leads Depeche Mode to triumph by using this winking theatricality as a transparent cloak for the emotional truth within. There’s a pact between the artist and the listener where both parties are fully aware of the smoke and mirrors, and as such the audience is allowed to read the music on whichever level(s) they wish. There’s a profound trust involved in such an approach.
The suspicion then is that Vulnicura could well do with some more smoke and mirrors of its own. Many of the most powerful moments in the Björk canon – Hyperballad, All Is Full of Love, Pagan Poetry – hold such a lingering sway because they allow the listener into moments of tender, intense personal emotion. The he and she of Pagan Poetry are, in a sense, irrelevant: the heart of the matter is that the listener is invited into this mighty bond that has been formed, invited to share in this moment of glory. Songs like Black Lake might relate personal memories also, but they do not open up to the listener in anything like the same way – for all the wide orchestral manoeuvres of this record, a lot of this record is notably shut off, sealed tight from any kind of personal re-interpretation. (It’s hard not to suspect also that one unintentional side-effect of Vulnicura will be to lend retrospective listens of Vespertine a colder, more cynical edge.) A lot of this record is performative, certainly – the MoMA installation of a video for Black Lake, featuring Björk howling her pain out amidst volcanos and lava, confirms that much. Rather than a theatrical spectacle where the audience is invited to see something magical conjured up by the players before their very eyes however, too much of Vulnicura is like an art exhibition where the viewer has been blocked off from the artwork, with the artist in pursuit of some deeper meaning but the viewer left struggling to care.
Indeed, some of the issues of this album are thrown into sharp relief by current single Lionsong and its accompanying video. The undertow of autobiography remains, but rather than a dogmatic ‘truth’ we get moments of doubt and possibility – will he, won’t he, is this what adulthood really means? It’s a song that quests for answers, and the accompanying footage of Björk, in the tarred, aquatic costume in which she appears on the cover of Vulnicura, retains the feel of a voyage, the heart singing out while the human looks, ponders and lives. If there is to be such a thing as a Björk break-up album, isn’t this so much more energising, so much more impressive and vital than what was delivered instead? Not that I believe that any critic has seriously been treating this with kid gloves (and again, it’s worth nothing that on a purely sonic and musical level, this is as superb as she’s ever been), but it does seem surprising that for an artist who the critical community has been more than happy to take to task over some of the flaws of her recent work or her penchant for almost endless formatting and re-issuing that this release of all releases has been so relatively un-analysed.
The question that Vulnicura leaves us with is this: do we always have to accept the ‘truth’ that an artist offers us, and do we accept the performance of such as something factual? Or do we instead challenge this, look for some greater awareness or something of meaning to the audience beyond their establish relationship with the performer, and ask instead for something that talks to us rather than at us? Björk is a formidable, intelligent writer and performer, but there’s something queasy in the self-mythologizing going on here, and not in the self-questioning, self-examining Kanye West sense either. There’s some brilliant music in here, but we’re being kept at arm’s length from it by the dramatic specify of it all – leaving a little mystery or space for the listener is how empathy really blooms.