Thursday, 19 February 2015

BJORK'S NEW ALBUM IS LIKE BILL MURRAY


A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Bjork's new album for Noisey, and decided it was like Bill Murray.  Basically, it's very difficult to review the work of an artist as seminal, a genius, whose brilliance is consistent throughout their career, without slipping into hyperbole.  So I resorted to a gimmick.  

A lot of people have Björk stories. Not, “I saw her playing in New York and it was amazing” stories, I mean personal, “I saw her at a fish market in Reykjavik and it was amazing” stories. I always think of her as the Bill Murray of the music industry—which is a far bigger compliment to Bill than it is to Björk. Although the stories I've heard about her differ to the Bill stories in one big way: I doubt when Bjork kisses you and sings at your 27th birthday, or when you find yourself dancing next to her at scuzzy London club Electrowerkz in the 90s, or when she makes you a spontaneous dessert tray of yoghurt, candy, and chocolate bars after you interview her (all of which have happened to people I know), that she's doing so thinking, “This is going to be such a great memory for this person, and it's totally going to bolster my public perception as an *unusual* person.” Whereas when Bill whispers in your ear on a New York City street, or spends the night with you, introducing you to strangers with the wrong name (both of which have also happened), there's a degree of knowing, a sly wink. 

That being said, Björk and Bill are beloved artists who exist and operate in the system, but do not engage with it in the usual way. It's almost like they hover in another dimension, which they allow us access to as they see fit.Yesterday Björk released her ninth studio album, Vulnicura. What a title. I couldn't find a dictionary definition for that word, but it sounds resolutely female, and I guess at a time when feminism is more than an abstract idea, it's a trend you can actually sell shit with—it's pretty timely. 

But Björk isn’t sitting at label meetings discussing how to market her next release. I don't think she's looking at Madonna's faces of historical figures wrapped in black cable, pondering, “Do I want to try that kind of tactic?” I don’t think she has tactics. I think she works on what she wants to work on and just does what feels right to her. Which is probably incredibly difficult to keep up after nine albums and a working relationship with the music industry that goes back to 1977. If anyone has creative freedom, it must be her.

But back to Vulnicura, a break-up album that should come with the warning: “On listening you will feel every sharp stab of loneliness and pain that the end of a romance brings.” On “Lion Song,” Björk hopes the person she loves will “Come out of this loving me,” which is crushing enough, but actually Björk is at her heartbreaking best when she's thinking about more philosophical ideas. Opening track, “Stone Milket,” introduces us to the strings she employs for a stack of the tracks on the album. They are the recurring characters, beautiful and ominous, weaving in and around each other, accompanied by sparse beats, a dollop of doom. You can feel your life eking away, as she sings, “Moments of clarity are so rare / I better document this.” You’re living an as of yet unscripted Bill Murray movie montage: you see your parents dying, you're at your daughter's wedding, you're holding your grandchild's hand, your face is old and grey. And all the while Bill's sitting on top of an incredibly steep mountain, on a purple chair, as the wind lifts his hair and he cry-laughs at you. At the same time though, this song could be about how we're all addicted to our phones and incessantly documenting everything. That's what makes Björk so wonderful: it's one thing just as it's another.

Sometimes Björk talks to you about sex. She's doing it right now, although in fact it's sex and death, because the two dance together, their tango brings them a hairsbreadth apart. Take “History of Touches” where she's singing sweetly about how she wanted to wake you up and make love to you because she had this feeling that maybe it was the last time you’d have sex together, because for everyone there will be a last time, a last time with a specific person, of course, but also a last time with anyone ever. And she's holding your hand and singing, “Sensing all the moments we've been together / Being here at the same time /  Every single touch / Every single fuck we had together.” And you're nodding because that is so true and also something you'd perhaps not fully realized before this moment, and you remember again why you love Björk so much. Björk is singing all of this over juddering beats, and on this occasion she hasn't invited the cellists and violinists into the bedroom—it's just you and her, a hissing synth, and some sexy, melancholy thoughts.Björk isn't all relationships and Big Ideas. Sometimes she just wants to freak you out. “Not Get” is uncomfortable and challenging, but “Family” goes one step further. It's a full-on, wide-eyed, mouth-gaping-in-speechless-terror, horror film. Björk’s really scaring us. With the sawing strings, irritating beeps, and creepy thuds, Björk is in your attic and she's banging something, and cutting something up, and you have no idea what the hell it is. She's singing, but she’s discordant, and it keeps getting louder and then suddenly it’s oh so quiet. “Family” is unsettling and yet still so beautiful—the combination a very Björk-ian balancing act, here, hitting its apex. "There is a swarm of sound,” she sings, then yodels into the ceiling. It's like watching your whole family die and then seeing the most awe-inspiring sunrise.

After that a palate cleanser arrives in the form of “Atom Dance,” a duet with Antony Hegarty set to an introductory set of plucked out strings. The pair somersault over each other, flooding your ears with feeling: It's glorious. For the first time you feel hope that this ache and longing will fade. This is reinforced by the album’s finale, “Quicksand,” with its jittery, tense, nervous energy. Beats skitter at high speed and the strings loop and loop, a repeated refrain that carries on long after the vocals and drums have stopped. Although she is moving on, it's going to take time, “Our mothers philosophies / It feels like quicksand / And if she sinks / I'm going down with her.” Björk is looking deep into your eyes, stroking your face, and telling you what you've always known, always felt, but possibly never articulated, “When I'm broken I am whole / And when I'm whole I am broken.” Just like when Bill Murray's grey-blue eyes and rumpled face somehow expresses 42 emotions at once, Björk fucking gets you, and Vulnicura is the only heartbreak you'll want to experience more than once.

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