Björk’s otherworldly power is a force to be reckoned with, whether channelled into art, motherhood, or all-encompassing heartbreak. Her new album Vulnicura, created as a “cure for wounds”, only lifts her higher.
Icelandic icon Björk is an artistic anomaly if there ever was one. An original in the truest sense of the term, her career is coming up on almost 30 years young with little to no sign of slowing down, and at almost 50 years old, Björk Guðmundsdóttir continues to make some of the most thrilling, vital and challenging art of her life and times. A true outlaw idealist with an insatiable appetite for the innovative, a freak with an irrepressible drive for expression, the universe she’s birthed around her oeuvre is one that is quite rightly admired the world over.
Since she split from her band The Sugarcubes to go solo in 1992, Björk has become one of the most identifiable, unlikely mavericks of modern pop culture, with not only staggeringly progressive records to show for it, but roles and scores in avant-garde film, a reel of revolutionary music videos, an instinctive, imaginative attitude to fashion, experiments in new technology, as well as tireless environmental crusading in defence of her native Iceland and a perpetually bristling political energy that can’t be curbed.
This year Björk released her eighth record, Vulnicura, and to mark the occasion the MoMA in New York is staging a career-spanning multimedia retrospective of her multifaceted works, from the release of Debut in 1993 onwards. The exhibition partitions her career by solo album, with each room proposing a combination of music, visual art, film, custom instrumentation, costume, poetry, props and personal artefacts to conjure the atmosphere of the corresponding record. Throughout all of which the visitor is aurally guided through her works by a headphone commentary that is part fantasy, part history, part poetry, and an adequately fantastical trip through the artist’s evolving wanderlust. It feels wild but not inappropriate for a pop artist of her calibre, whose calling card has been music but whose output has included so much more, to be placed in such revered artistic context.
A voracious collaborator long before it was de rigueur in our age of E-asy access and the www, from early on Björk made connecting all sorts of crucial, disparate dots her M.O. Folks like Nellee Hooper, Michel Gondry, Tricky, LFO, Spike Jonze, Thom Yorke, Chris Cunningham, Hussein Chalayan, Omar Souleyman, Lars von Trier, Alexander McQueen, Matthew Herbert, Nick Knight, Robert Wyatt, Bernhard Willhelm, Timbaland, Antony Hegarty, Toumani Diabaté, Dirty Projectors, M/M Paris, David Attenborough – all have come into the impish Icelandic polymath’s orbit over the years, crystallising a catalogue that is one of the most defining of her generation.
For Vulnicura, Björk chose to work primarily with Venezuelan producer Arca and British musician The Haxan Cloak, two artists who exist out on the perimeters of popular music but who are nonetheless each making their own indelible mark on it. Arca has made himself a name crafting next wave beats that folks like Kanye West and FKA Twigs are clamouring to keep up with, while The Haxan Cloak is busy carving out his own deep niche in foreboding, textured drone that’s remarkable for its raw visceral power. It’s fitting that an artist as fiercely and deliberately driven as Björk should bring together two such unlikely but beguiling wildcards, the resultant record being as challenging and progressive as one might almost have come to expect.
Just in case the team Björk assembled wasn’t enough of a curveball, Vulnicura turns out to be a startlingly candid break-up record. An at times gut-wrenching airing of the dissolution of her relationship with the father of her second child, fine artist Matthew Barney (“Family was always our sacred mutual mission, which you abandoned”, and “You have nothing to give, your heart is hollow, I’m drowned in sorrows, no hope in sight of ever recover” – Black Lake), it catches Björk reeling in the breakdown’s wake. At the same time as she’s being so publicly celebrated, to hear an artist go so far out on a limb to expose herself is at once wonderful and crazy but also comforting to know that age will certainly not weary this free radical.