It’s a big week for Icelandic singer-songwriter-artist Björk — not only does her first-ever career retrospective open at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), but she also begins her run of intimate concert-hall dates, also in New York City, showcasing her latest album, “Vulnicura.”
As every music review of her newest album has inevitably mentioned, “Vulnicura” was written alongside — and in the wake of — Björk’s split from her longtime companion and co-parent, conceptual artist Matthew Barney. These critics are right to do so; regardless of whether or not you think an artist’s life should be considered in discussions about their work, there is no way to listen to the album without being shaken by the sheer pain palpable in Björk’s straining voice. From first to last, the album is an exploration of this kind of earth-shattering loss.
This is not to say that one can just shove “Vulnicura” into the category of “breakup album” and move on — if one knows anything about Björk, it’s that she’s not one for the conventional. Björk’s album takes the pop institution of songs about heartbreak and takes them apart, reexamining them. Not only do “Vulnicura’s” songs consistently shirk convention — the majority of them stretch past the six- minute mark, and the verse-chorus dichotomy is rare to be found — they also move past simple mournfulness and shimmer with their own strength.
The album itself is structured, as the liner notes explain, around the chronology of her and Barney’s split and, as such, journeys through the earliest stages of a disintegrating relationship through to its effects, and finally, perhaps, a reconstruction. Arguably the album’s centerpiece, the ten-minute long “Black Lake” ends notably with a verse declaring “I am a glowing shiny rocket / returning home / as I enter the atmosphere / I burn off layer by layer.”
Allusions to layers, “peeling off”, and re-growing are rife throughout; it is as if the album is the pronouncement of a reconstruction in the wake of all this emotional damage.
Björk’s work has never simply been about the music. Without risking the subjugation of each album’s content to the visual and artistic worlds swirling around them, it’s fair to say that she’s always been an artist working on multiple levels. Her 2011 album “Biophilia” was accompanied by an app, wherein each song was turned into a game that also gave users the option to understand each piece’s composition. The app ended up being the first app MOMA would ever collect as part of its permanent collection. Björk’s music videos have consistently sought the most visionary of collaborators, including French director Michel Gondry of “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and digital artist Christ Cunningham, among others. “Vulnicura’s” album cover along with much of the other publicity material includes images of Björk with what looks like a great hole, gaping open on her chest — the connection between the openness of her body and her album’s honesty and vulnerability can’t be ignored.
Given how her work extends beyond purely music, MoMA has curated a fitting Björk retrospective that showcases the progression of her work throughout the years. While the reaction to it has, thus far, been negative —in fact it could not be further from the positivity with which “Vulnicura” has been received — the show will at least give viewers unfamiliar with Björk’s oeuvre something different to what they’re used from, besides just bringing MoMA a serious sum of money. And if the show really disappoints, then we’ll still have the album — not only a musical landmark, but also, painfully, beautifully, a gift.
MoMA’s Björk retrospective opened Mar. 8 and will continue to Jun. 7. “Vulnicura” is out on One Little Indian now.