“Find our mutual coordinates,” Björk coos on “Stonemilker,” the ravishing avant-classical opening salvo of her new album, Vulnicura. It’s a sentiment of direct romantic longing as translated by a singer fascinated by the measurable forces that move people and the world surrounding them—and nothing surprising from the multimedia enthusiast behind 2011’s Biophilia, an album with song titles like “Mutual Core” and “Cosmogony.” But if Björk, thematically, doesn’t appear to have changed station, the song’s swirl of dramatic strings and dirge-like pace puts Vulnicura far afield from its relatively more pop-minded predecessor. If Biophilia seemed to inch Björk back toward the sound of 1995’s Post, with tangible hooks like those of “Crystalline” and song-shaped chunks like “Virus,” Vulnicura pushes away and forward, looking to both the icier soundscapes of 1997’s epochal Homogenic and the more challengingly amorphous passages that clogged up 2007’s Volta.
What’s remained true since at least “Declare Independence” is that Björk has little interest in a zeitgeist that at one time her participation helped shape—through pop songs as undeniable as “Hyperballad” and music videos that have attained status as classic examples of the form. Vulnicura never gets any more accessible than “Stonemilker,” which itself tends to sound a bit like a eulogy for the heroine of “Hyperballad,” having finally jumped off those cliffs and drifted through a beautifully melancholic afterlife. As if the participation of Venezuelan beat magpie Arca and doom-ambient merchant the Haxan Cloak weren’t evidence enough, one listen to Vulnicura confirms what’s been evident for a long time, but will still continue to come as a disappointment for many: Björk firmly belongs to the world of the avant-garde.
From that realization, you could choose to pine for the Icelandic pop iconoclast who once turned show tunes into loud-quiet-loud combustions of a giddy heart, who cooed seductively about her headphones, and skipped joyfully over lockstep beats from marquee producers like Timbaland; or you could acknowledge a progression that’s been telegraphed since Björk’s laptop album (2001’s Vespertine), her vocalese-ish one (2004’s Medúlla) and the dud she crowned with a handful of undisciplined Antony Hegarty features (Volta). But even anticipating Vulnicura within the context of her relative avant-garde period may not leave you adequately prepared. She never allows for anything as upbeat as Volta’s “Earth Intruders” or “Declare Independence” here, instead content in indulging lengthy expeditions through the soundscapes conjured from her own (still frequently breathtaking) string compositions and the idiosyncratic colorings of her two collaborators.
Some of these destinations are fetching: The ambitious “Black Lake” sounds like an even more frigid pasture of Homogenic’s glacial continent, its detuned violins sawing away at a theme reminiscent of Mihály Víg’s hauntingly cyclical scores for Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and its 10-minute sprawl summoning the apocalyptic expansiveness of epics like The Turin Horse and Sátántangó. “Lionsong” offers a return to another half-remembered page out of Björk’s past (the prowling pensiveness of Homogenic opener “Hunter”), while “Not Get” sounds, in all seriousness, like a pirate ship. Often, however, Björk settles for sketch-level songcraft like the brief Arca-aided “History of Touches,” which never congeals into anything of defined shape, letting its prism of metallic synths—the sound of a thousand robot cicadas stirring to action—carry her free-form word soup: “Every single fuck/We had together/Is in a wondrous time-lapse/With us here at this moment.”
That ostensibly romantic verse signifies Vulnicura’s pronounced disconnect between the album’s near-uniform interest in foreboding, haunted, and possessed instrumental accompaniment and Björk’s general inability to translate, say, the abyss-like density of a piece like “Family” into anything resembling a guiding force through her vocal and only tangentially comprehensible lyrics. And when the singer finally begins to emote dynamically in the album’s second half, that’s also when Vulnicura’s musical foundation comes apart: a tempest of disorganized sound on the penultimate “Mouth Mantra” and the EDM nightmare of “Quicksand.” Homogenic employed a similar method of collapse, with “Pluto” bringing down the album around it, leaving only the pastoral quiet of “All Is Full of Love” in its wake. But it turns out the offered counterpoint of real songs to be detonating made all the difference. Here the effect is moving from one disorienting place to an even more disorienting one.
Which is to say, not the most desirable of coordinates. “Stonemilker” is evidence enough that there’s a happier medium for Björk to arrive at, somewhere between the poles of pop and avant-garde, that should she ever get over her apparent fear of rhythms that lead and melodies that congeal, she may be able to make great music again, and still on her own terms. Vulnicura isn’t the album to take her to that place; if Biophilia suggested she may be heading toward its vicinity, this alien object is a reminder we may never understand the inner workings of one of the most truly unique icons in popular music, even if the trajectory of that path continues to be worth mapping.