one of the more remarkable things about bjork, and radiohead too, is the way the music embeds a desire for itself the longer it goes. if at first the songs come off grating and awkward musically, over the course of a few listens, but even over the course of the length of the song, it builds in layers an appreciation and an appetite for itself. it replicates, in other words, virally, aurally, emotionally.
vulnicura is a breakup album of these proportions: internally monumental, self generating, generous. walking around nyc with it is risky. the lump in the throat or the tension in the gut will slow you down, make it harder to walk around the february grayness. this is the cruelest month, when no slant of light or heft of song can cure you. there’s nothing green or floral, no building facade to admire. it’s you with your head down, your ears to the pillowy ground.
it’s also hard to make an assessment of the album on its own terms, as i’m deliberately over empathizing with the bjork of my pathos and my deep admiration. that she has uniquely cultivated an artist-performer-avant-gardist persona is already a scale few have surpassed, and even fewer as women. but it’s her emotional acuity i’m especially awed by, and i think you are too. who else can describe, in a break-up album, the feeling of fucking again, or the loss of the fucking. celebrating the fucks, but definitely grieving them as moments of union. or how bout the relationship between coupling and protection from death?
i’m listening to vulnicura again, in the privacy of my own home, no, my ex-bf’s, just in case i break down into weeping again, safely, on this couch, away from male concern and female repudiation. it’s bad form to get so emotional in public spaces, not a good look, and it’s definitely unfeminist to do so about a man, about a life you anticipated leading, closer to heteronormativity than you ever imagined, i mean me, more than i even expected, and now the door is closed.
show me / emotional respect
i wish to / synchronize our feelings
it’s the strings, i mean it’s always the strings, but in stonemilker they’re really pleading, it’s sad, it’s hard to listen to, the strength of the words but the plaint of the strings. incongruous. the strings betray her heart as they betray mine.
how could you write a song about having multiple feelings at the same time? that’s maybe the central tension of this album and breaking up in general.
maybe he’ll come out of this loving me / maybe he won’t
i’m not taming no animal
somehow i’m not too bothered either way
to be stuck / in complexity
i demand / all clarity / either way
the voice, the supplication, is characteristically bjork, or bjorkian, and it’s not like her other albums have been any less dynamic or lopsided sonically. but this one especially aligns the form with the content, the low notes to high notes erratically, confusedly, but then they resolve at the end by way of strings. and on a high note, always on a high note.
when i saw her in concert with my friend and fellow fan iris, it was right after the big breakup, right at the release of vulnicura. she was in her armor, her round spikey mask over the face, but she was present, and powerful, but also vulnerable. that was the first half. after the break the 2nd half was dancey, jubilant, young again. i’m grateful to bjork for many things but this most of all–that i saw what it looks like back in 2015 to suffer great heartache and then dance to old favorites after. 2 eyes on the same face, surrounded by so many beautiful thorns.
it was probably 2015 or 2016 too that i went to the bjork exhibit at moma and saw the installation in a closed room of the video for black lake. the bass was riveting, a dark pleasure, pulsating in my body. and the images of dark rock, deep unknowable earth, and bjork’s human body rolling around in it. video, or two separate videos, were projected behind you and before you, and maybe even to the side of you. you were surrounded by unsynchronized bjork. just like this song is unsynchronized too, tries to find its rhythm, rolls around in the strings for a while. an irregular heartbeat. cliché. pathetic. but still, deeply felt.
just when you think she’s about to get mad, on account of the drums, she talks herself back into feeling. an allegiance, an assurance, in feeling. impressive restraint. stamina in the face of wanting the high of rage in place of the dread of longing. i guess by the time it ends the strings replacing her voice is what gets me. i’m weeping to the cat on a couch that was never mine.
as i understand it there are 2 truths to reconcile with on the occasion of a breakup. one is that you have to confront your possible permanent solitude, and the other is that love is unsustainable. or at least this one was. which means there are 2 ways to go about these contingencies. you either fling yourself out at the world arms spread-eagle for love and acceptance and companionship and hunt it down like a bird of prey. or you steel yourself up for the winter, enlist your reserves of inner strength, your resources for resiliency, your unshakeable faith in yourself as a person on this earth that is nevertheless swimming in and feasting on love. maybe not from the sources you are staring at, mother bjork once told us. but all is full of love. my friends, my music, my relationship with the world, the streets, the trees. this little cat body tolerating my existence. i know i must honor it myself, and not just to show others how, but to sew real joy into my life, cultivate that emotional richness so that one day it flowers into a hopeful spring. this is the work of a breakup. this is its gift to you.
and should you choose to accept it know that by your side is the ever effervescent, though that word is gendered, mother, ungendered, of your woes as well as triumphs. who else nurses your dispositions with such surgical precision. who else processes your tensions with you and within you. surely one who from seemingly birth has been mired in and bound up with the spiritual, and so the oracular, and so the feminine, and so the human. who else can stare down a banal breakup like that and make it art. few can, and even fewer recognize her for the genius that she is, though her fans are devoted and far-flung, and though her concerts are always sold out. who can celebrate the bjork that’s intellectual, rigorous, emotionally fluent, interdisciplinary, worthy of serious dissertations and serious praise? there’s that false binary star between feeling and thinking but bjork is the one who’s a pulsar between them. just look to bjork in the darkening sky because it’s february which is dreary but at least it’s still 6ish not 5ish right now. it had been worse, and you remember it. and if you avoided this album back in 2015 at the height of your love, your attempt at a relationship that’s lasting, you can forgive yourself, and also thank yourself, because you have this journey now to look forward to, fully, and clear-eyed, and free from illusions. one thing endures though, doesn’t it–making music of your life, making muse of your circumstances, making an artist/critic of yourself and your heart.