“No techno”: Björk comes alive with the organic Vulnicura Strings

Not many studio album spin-offs can have a strong case made for them. There’s your popstar re-release – a “deluxe” edition made so only by the presence of a fifth single that used to go on the main thing – and there’s your remix album, most of which lack quality control due to the matey nature of their conception. Vulnicura Strings is neither of those things, and intermittently eclipses its parent. Björk has spoken of wishing to “unite the electronics and the acoustic instruments in an almost romantic way: to prove they can coexist”. It’s curious to hear this from someone who’s already done more than most to prove that they can, especially on the magnificent Homogenic. In any case, she gave more affirmative evidence on Vulnicura, and now gives her orchestration skills a chance to stand on their own.

The original passed me by upon its release in January. I wasn’t listening to much music at the time, and suspected the consensus of praise might’ve stemmed less from the work itself and more from a collective determination to canonise it as the return to top form that Biophilia wasn’t. I actually heard Strings before Vulnicura – not to prove a point, just on the basis that if you’re tackling the director’s cut of an already difficult record (or so other reviews warned), you might as well dive in at the deep end.

A significantly reorganised tracklist is the first thing you notice. Only “Lionsong” appears in its original position, while the nostalgically sexual “History of Touches” is dropped altogether. “Mouth Mantra” opens proceedings despite showing up at the tail end of Vulnicura. Though it’s conceptually intriguing to start an album about piecing your shattered identity back together with a tale of being literally voiceless, it doesn’t quite gel as an opener. The earlier version’s percussion lent a pop sense of texture to the dissonance, so the verse where she thanks her vocal cords for all they’ve allowed her to achieve loses its cathartic impact. All through the record, microphones are noticeably closer to the strings. This will either work for you or it won’t, but it certainly succeeds in compounding the aural claustrophobia.

Other reinterpretations are more rewarding. “Family” benefits from its transition into an instrumental, where its dissonant, unbearably long chords (our artist calls them “the freezes”) say all you need to know about her past couple of years. Its lyrics were – be honest – meandering drivel, and without multilayered vocals to distract, a remarkable piece is allowed the attention it deserves. “Lionsong” does well without accompaniment, too; this version luxuriates in its modal misery, and makes the original’s jittery beats feel like an afterthought. Her underappreciated sense of humour is still there, too, as “Black Lake” shows. While electronics enhance the Vulnicura mix by evoking a quiet anger, their absence on Strings makes one more likely to notice the occasional gem of a line. “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions”, she deadpans across four slow bars, and there you have a grimly funny summary of the frictions that can rip people apart from each other. Less impressive is a needless reprise of the same song that descends into tedium soon after the New Instrument Novelty Factor wears off.

Some are reading her drawn-out vowels as a kind of metaphor for repressed expression; a new technique to say what’s so hard to say. But it has always been thus with Björk: remember “Venus as a Boy”, where she took half an hour to spit out the first couplet, and every word built more anticipation for the next? That song had a drastically different tone to those you’ll find here, yet the style was hers then and still is.

Björk threw herself right into string writing as a way of coping with grief; the compositional discipline required to make all the parts click an ideal diversion from otherwise all-consuming sadness. Vulnicura alone is exhausting enough. Removing the bleeps and thuds that helped wash down its through-composed violin dirges only dials the difficulty level up another notch. Her arrangements display the imagination that characterises her discography, and most of them succeed in isolation. It’s just a bit overwhelming when heard all in one hit. Vulnicura Strings is much harder to embrace with the chest than with the head, and unless you’re acutely heartbroken or enamoured of classical modernism (or both), you aren’t likely to choose it over her past triumphs too often.

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