In January of this year, Björk released Vulnicura, her ninth studio album, to critical acclaim. Vulnicura Strings is the same record in acoustic form, but— unsurprisingly, given its famously eccentric creator— there’s not a softly strummed guitar to be heard. Instead, its predecessor’s dense electronic instrumentation has been replaced with just strings and vocals, and the original track listing has been reshuffled, with one song, ‘History of Touches’, being done away with altogether.
The phrase “acoustic album” might bring to mind something subdued, stripped-back, and gentle, but if this is what you’re expecting, the arresting introductory strings of opening track ‘Mouth Mantra’ will quickly set you straight. Björk’s string arrangements are taut, nervy, and doleful by turns; at times they jump anxiously between notes, at others they are mournfully sustained.
“Ultimately, Vulnicura Strings achieves what it sets out to do: it plunges the listener into the heart of the collapsing relationship that it depicts”
The reduced instrumentation, particularly the absence of percussion, means that some of the more soaring moments of Vulnicura are lost; the record becomes an altogether darker, more unsettling, yet undeniably immersive experience. This is a break-up album after all, and in its acoustic form we get an intense sense of proximity to the singer, making her uneasy, inner monologue – charting the end of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney – all the more affecting.
Overall, it is not necessarily easy to listen to — it’s hardly an album of catchy choruses after all — but it certainly elicits an emotional response. That isn’t to say that the darkness is unrelenting, as the lush strings of ‘Stonemilker’, in particular, provide us with some much needed mid-record reprieve. Nor is it to suggest that the album suffers from a lack of variation in pace. It’s just that these pace-changes tend not to veer into optimism; instead they often result in dramatic sections of wailing high-pitched strings that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Psycho soundtrack.
There is certainly an element of the cinematic to this album, which is perhaps unavoidable when composing for a string section. This is particularly true of the closing track, ‘Family’, which entirely forgoes vocals and opens with a fantastically creepy three-minute layering of sustained dissonance that gives way to an extended instrumental. This instrumental, incidentally, is provided by a Viola Organista, an obscure viola-organ hybrid apparently designed by Leonardo da Vinci — obscure enough, in fact, that Björk had to outsource its recording to Poland.
“It’s hard to say if it will be especially appreciated in its own right, or if it will end up being largely subsumed by its originator”
You couldn’t accuse Björk of cashing in on Vulnicura’s success by simply rehashing its songs: this album is clearly more than that. That said, it’s hard to say if it will be especially appreciated in its own right, or if it will end up being largely subsumed by its originator. Sadly my gut instinct is to go with the latter, although one imagines that Björk, who has never been known for letting her career be dictated by commercial gain, is aware of this and doesn’t particularly care.
Ultimately, Vulnicura Strings achieves what it sets out to do: it plunges the listener into the heart of the collapsing relationship that it depicts, and you’d be hard-pressed to reach its end without feeling at least a little shaken up.