Bjork/ Natalie Prass/ Jessica Pratt – Review

16 Mar

Break ups are complex. Most people have experienced at least one and yet no two are the same. Maybe you see it coming over many months, even years, or maybe it comes suddenly. Maybe your heart was torn open by an atom bomb or maybe it dissolved, little by little. Who caused it? Who initiated it? Who was sad about it? Was it a clean break? Do you stay in touch? Were there children involved? These are a few of the many variables that can alter the ‘break up and many of these complexities are borne out in new release by Bjork, Natalie Prass and Jessic Pratt.

Most singers and bands will weigh in on the subject at some point. Some will dedicate songs to it, some will dedicate albums to it, and if you’re Taylor Swift you will dedicate an entire career to it. There is nothing wrong with this, despite what some (often sexist) critics will tell you in their Taylor Swift reviews. In fact, I’d argue that Pop dissects heartbreak with more success than any other form of art. And yet these critics often reduce the ‘break up album’ to a cliche, dismiss it or in Taylor’s case, mock it – especially if it’s made by a woman it seems. The ‘break up album’ has almost become a by-word for the ‘messy, self-indulgent, singer-songwriter’ album.

The last month has been a happening one for fans of the break up album, and for fans of broken hearted female singer-songwriters in particular. Bjork’s album, ‘Vulnicura’, is wide-reaching, eratic and forensically detailed. At once it’s an almost unlistenable record as well as a beautiful and ambitious work of art. It treats the break up as the monumental event it no doubt was to Bjork. She considers it from the early signs of break down to the terrible aftermath. She borrows here from Sharon Olds’ 2011 poetry collection ‘Stag’s Leap’, which took a similarly precise, chronological approach to detailing the end of a marriage. Bjork dispenses with metaphor, rhyme and colour almost entirely. Her words are blunt and cutting where the music is often sweeping and ornate.

‘Vulnicura’ is devistating and not a record you would want to spend too much time with. It’s a record that, in its innate sadness, drags you down and immerses you at the bottom of an emotional sea. However there is a sense of clarity that energes at the end of the album, as Bjork reverts inwards and contemplates the significance of the relationship’s demise. ‘When I am broken I am whole’ is probably the most revealing line on the album, and variants on it can be found in three of the songs. There is the reveal that through the artistic process Bjork has cleansed herself and found some kind of closure. Like people who stick those therapeutic pins in their body, the temporary pain of dwelling on sad emotions ultimately subsides and leaves Bjork feeling renewed. And despite the sadness, Bjork sounds more energised, open-hearted, ambitious and on-form than I’ve ever heard her. It’s an album you won’t want to spin too often but you’ll never forget it.

Jessica Pratt takes the oppossite approach to Bjork, lyrically at least. In contrast to Bjork’s strict narrative style, Pratt’s lyrics are impressionistic, imaginative and pretty. Sometimes it’s difficult to follow the thread, but that makes it all the more hard-hitting when one of her lines really rings clearly. ‘Your love is just a myth I devised’ she sings on the heartbreakingly honest and stunning ‘Back Baby.’

The musical design of ‘On your own love again’ is also in complete contrast to ‘Vulnacura’. The delicate and nimble finger-picking of an old acoustic guitar, recorded live on to tape, is the only instrument you really hear on the album. Pratt’s confident and sophisticated style keeps the songs from becoming bland or obvious but without the voice there is no doubt the songs would be slightly lacking. But what a voice. Breathy and fragile it sounds older than the hills and is easily the best thing ‘on your own love again’ has going for it. Over nine songs, this distinctive but limited combination of voice, guitar and heart torn melodies wears a little thin and a bit more variety may have be welcomed. But in its brightest moments (‘Back Baby’, ‘Strange Melody’ and ‘Greycedes’) ‘On Your Own Love Again’ is stunning in it’s direct simplicity.

Somewhere in between Bjork’s realism and Pratt’s impressionism we have the more traditional singer-songwriter fare of ‘Natalie Prass’. Prass’ lyricism is more conventional than her counterparts but is just as devestating. ‘I don’t feel much, i’m afraid I don’t feel anything at all’ is her opening gambit and things get even more forlorn from here on in. She describes a love that is flagging and on it’s last legs and throughout the album Prass inhabits a wide range of emotions. There’s doubt and insecurity on the upbeat ‘Why Don’t You Believe in Me’, resigned misery on ‘Your Fool’, desperation on the chilling ‘Violently’ and optimism on ‘It Is you’.

Produced by her Label Boss and fellow retro-devotee Matthew E. white, ‘Natalie Prass’ is decorated in sugar-sweet orchestration and luxurious horn flourishes. Compared to the bare boned simplicity of ‘On Your Own Live Again’ and the more experimental ‘Vulnicura’, ‘Natalie Prass’ sounds colourful, poppy and expansive. The sophisticated arrangements lend the album cohesion but also allow for different subtleties to reveal themselves. ‘why Don’t You Believe in Me’ is Motown-esque with it’s fuzzy bass line and Soulful horn licks. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘It is You’ would fit comfortably in any old disney film, thanks to the flutes and ornate strings, not to mention the innocent lyrics that talk enthusiastically of love, in deliberate contrast to all the brooding cynicism that comes before it.

I’ve lived with these three album for two months now and I’ve found myself enjoying them and ranking them differently from week to week. ‘Natalie Prass’ was the most instantaneously enjoyable thanks to the poppy melodies and sticky hooks. ‘On Your Own Love Again’ is more of a slow burner but I’ve probably listened to it more than the other two albums. That said, it has a fairly limited range and creates a rather overcast mood. Bjork’s album is the most obtuse and complicated of the trio. It’s unbearably sad, too long and often quite oppressive but it’s also captivating and more ambitious than anything else you will hear in 2015. All three albums prove there is life left in the ‘break up album’ whilst unpacking and disproving so many of the cliches that mysoginistic and boring critics continue to throw at female singer-songwriters.

Bjork ‘Vulnicura’ – 8.5

Natalie Prass ‘Natalie Prass’ – 8

Jessica Pratt ‘On Your Own Love Again’ – 8

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