Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
On Facebook last week, I asked people to share their favorite breakup songs and breakup albums. I’d become enthralled by a powerful new album lamenting the loss of love and of a family unit, and I wanted reference points to help me evaluate it fairly and avoid exaggeration and hyperbole in describing it.
My interest in the specific titles posted on my Facebook page—“Coldplay’s Ghost Stories!” “Adele’s 21!” Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I Am a Rock!’”—was quickly surpassed by my interest in the sheer enthusiasm with which people responded.
We have strong feelings about breakup songs, apparently.
This shouldn’t surprise me: Sharing your heart with someone who in turn takes sledgehammer to it understandably leaves an impression.
So this post quickly grew into a two-part installment. This week, I’ll tell you about the song that sparked the questions. Next week, I’ll pass along reader recommendations and share the one that means the most to me.
This week, the breakup song that won’t stop humming on my mind’s turntable is Björk’s “Stonemilker”—and, in fact, the entire album that follows it.
Vulnicura, Björk’s ninth studio album, arrived suddenly and clumsily this week. It was leaked (stolen)—a betrayal of the artist. And so, disappointed about losing control of something she had crafted in love, she sought to minimize the damage with a quick, awkward release of the record on iTunes. That way, her fans would have the opportunity to show some decency and allow her some dignity by actually purchasing her work instead of stealing it.
All of this seemed almost appropriate, considering the album’s subject: the loss of love, a struggle to recover it, and seeking hope in the aftermath. Vulnicura is a break-up record par excellence. It’s an epic, a plunge into the deepest depths of her heart’s ocean. On her 2010 EP Old Tin Pan, Sam Phillips so poignantly sang, “When you’re down / When you’re down / When you’re down / You find out what’s down there.” Björk, sinking to the bottom, finds resources of wisdom, strength, compassion, and maturity that raise this record above so many divorce-triggered rants and revenge songs.
“Stonemilker” is the first chapter in the story of a woman whose love is being forcibly ripped from her body and soul.
A juxtapositioning fate —
Find our mutual coordinates.
Moments of clarity are so rare,
I’d better document this.
At last the view is fierce.
It sounds like this relationship has reached a turning point. Something has made their “juxtapositioning” crystal clear.
All that matters is. . .
Who is open chested
And who has coagulated?
Who can share
and who has shut down the chances?
Anyone who has been to counseling with a spouse or partner will recognize this: the need for transparency from both parties, a willingness to air true feelings. Remember Peter Gabriel’s songs about therapy? “Please, come talk to me / We can unlock this misery. . .” “Digging in the dirt / Find the places we got hurt. . .” But Björk’s partner seems unwilling to communicate or cooperate. And she struggles with the experience of unrequited openness:
What is it that I have
That makes me feel your pain?
Like milking a stone,
To get you to say it.
You can follow a whole narrative in this song, and a fuller story throughout the album: the dawning realization of a lover’s despair and fear of death; the frustration in trying to reconcile differences, and getting no help; the slow and painful collapse; the “lasts” of touches and nights together; the frustration over broken promises and hard-heartedness; the confusion over how to care for a child abandoned; and then the steep climb up a mountain of emotional devastation toward a view of hope.
It’s easy to guess about the facts behind this record’s painful testimony. The Los Angeles Times review of Vulnicura all but confirms them:
Though Björk, who has a daughter with [Matthew Barney], never mentions her ex by name, she delivers lines about family—mothers, fathers and daughters in “Family”—that make it painfully apparent this is her take on a real-life situation. (Barney and Björk reportedly ended their decade-long relationship in 2013.)
The specificity of detail here—especially in “History of Touches”—brings the listener into an unsettling intimacy with a very real relationship.
Unsettling, but never alienating. Björk is enough of a poet that anyone who has ever experienced the devastation of a hard divorce or breakup will find their own experiences pouring into the spaces that she opens up. I suspect that there are few adults who cannot relate to lines like these:
My soul torn apart
My spirit is broken
Into the fabric of all
He is woven. . .
The personal details elsewhere serve to give the listener a sense of companionship, of meeting a fellow survivor who knows the hardship of loneliness and private pain.
Thus, Vunicura’s icon-like cover art. Clad in black—for mourning, probably, but also for fighting—Bjork looks as much like Catwoman as she does a woman shattered by grief. Nevertheless, spring sprouts are bursting crocus-like from the surface of her garment, giving her an aura of new growth and hope. And her chest is split open like an icon of Mary, revealing heart muscle—a perfect representation of the record’s insides.
Mirroring this, the music has a heart of lush cello—that most human of instruments; and its black leather, a sheen of dark electronic textures.
For fans, this is a familiar sound. “Stonemilker” brings Björk back to the sound of 1997’s Homogenic. More specifically, it seems to spring from that album’s second track: “Joga” (better known as the “State of Emergency” song, which provided climactic pathos in Jane Campion’s tragic TV series Top of the Lake).
Even though Björk was in her mid-30s when she composed Homogenic—my favorite of her records—it sounded to me like an adolescent’s embrace of self-expression, of striving to give a shape to emotions and experiences that transcend available vocabulary. It was a record proclaiming, “I feel, therefore I am!”
But “Stonemilker” is not just a return to Home Base. Vulnicura is Homogenic’s sound made wiser, not so eager to impress or please the crowd. It’s mature, reflective. It’s the all-grown-up manifestation of the young woman who so defiantly announced to the world, “I’m a fountain of blood / In the shape of a girl” (“Bachelorette”). But instead of creating another declaration of independence, she gives us confession of—and proclamation of—how much we need each other.
In “Stonemilker,” as the singer reaches out to an unresponsive, failing lover, Björk ends up reaching out to us and inviting us to be “open chested” ourselves, to refuse the “coagulation” of self-centeredness and separation.
And that’s why I love her. Björk is uninhibited in her willingness to rip open her heart and show us what’s inside, in the way she risks looking ridiculous or making listeners uncomfortable in order to make new things possible. And she more than makes up for any lyrical clumsiness or sentimentality by opening up new territories of sound in which we recognize feelings and experiences for which we have not yet found the words.
The most surprising thing in all of this is that it never turns easy or predictable. She refuses to let this become an Angry Record.
Oh, she’s angry, sure. In “Black Lake,” she laments how a family “was always our sacred mutual mission / Which you abandoned.” And in “Family,” Vulnicura’s most exciting collaboration—featuring the 27-year-old horror-electronica artist who calls himself The Haxan Cloak—she asks, “Is there a place / Where I can pay my respects / For the death of my family?”
This is not the scream of a raging banshee, à la Sinead O’Connor. It’s bigger and better than that. In “Quicksand,” Bjork sings, “When we’re broken, we’re whole.”
That sounds awfully familiar. It reminds me of the passionate pinnacle of energy on U2’s new album Songs of Innocence, when Bono, reflecting on damage suffered in his younger years, cries out: “But a heart that is broken / is a heart that is open.”
In the contexts of those two powerful records, Björk and Bono are calling us to open up our wounds to allow for a mysterious redemption to take place—the construction of something substantial, beautiful, and useful from the broken pieces of our hearts.
In her Facebook announcement of the album, Björk writes that she wants this album to be
a help, a crutch to others and prove how biological this process is : the wound and the healing of the wound . psychologically and physically . it has a stubborn clock attached to it .
Then she adds:
there is a way out
It’ll be hard, in 2015, to find a musician’s expression of damage and longing and hope that is more courageous and risky and raw—and unifying—than Vulnicura.