This? Oh, just our favorite song of the year to date…
Josh Winters: As an idealist and romantic, the idea of finding a mutual coordinate feels incomprehensibly beautiful to me in its precision and rare possibility. To hear her journey in its last dwindling stages, knowing the outcome as she tries to foster a love as enormous as the universe is what sinks my heart to the bottom of the earth. If anything, “Stonemilker” is a much better case for her omnipresence over all Creation than Biophilia ever was.
Will Adams: The opening motif is perfect: lifting, falling, trying to reach higher toward some truth, any answer to the question, “Who is open?” Tectonic beats rumble through while Björk painstakingly carves out syllables, but the strings are always there, lifting with hope, falling with resignation, expectant, heartbroken, and determined.
Katherine St Asaph: Lonely like a cathedral built of your own imagination and neurons and turned-in-on-themselves romantic impulses is.
Jonathan Bogart: You can’t get blood from a stone, but with enough patience and empathy you might encourage it to become mammalian and feed its young. There’s a dark, deep hope in that, so terrible I can only look at it sideways.
Brad Shoup: What happens with you split with a scientist? It’s not pretty, and it’s probably your fault. Look, you know that no one in the last 20 years has spliced the experimental with the emotional quite like Björk, and here she pours each — deliberately, sadly — into the beaker. The distancing scrambles and dissolves like a coding error; she starts with geometry, trying to triangulate her way out of the morass; then she haunts the plains of psychology until grasping back, at the end, towards her original premise. Musically, she shuts down all previous avenues. The vocal interplay is abandoned; the skips and glitches are filed away. A bassy undercurrent maintains the mourning, a string section draws out her accusations. The only attempt at defense is the occasional royal-English gulp, a kind of comic gesture imbuing the moves about to be re-enacted for the nth time. “How does one stay open?” Sure is easy for me to ponder, isn’t it?
Edward Okulicz: Argh, no, as much as one tries not to hear this song as “Well, she broke up with a guy and now the first song on the album about that break-up sounds like what she did before she was with that guy,” it’s at least a nice coincidence. Not that this scales the melodic/lyrical heights of “Jóga” (how she stretches out “e-mooo-tion-aaal!”) or “Unravel” or “Unison,” all of which I hear echoes of, but it’s a comforting shift back to a mood she’s mastered, only with a new story on top. The melody is lovely, and the strings elegantly mournful; Björk has an emotional range as both a singer and composer that’s near-unmatched in pop. “Stonemilker” doesn’t stun in the way her ’90s work melded ideas from outgoing dance music with intensely personal songs, but as both a gorgeous sound and a magnificent fuck-you-goodbye from the title down, it’s good to have the old-but-new Björk with us.
Jonathan Bradley: Edging away from throat-singing and multimedia experimentation should come off as a retreat, but “Stonemilker” is not that. Björk’s relationship with sound has never been one of bold intrusions into uncharted frontiers, but rather an apparent understanding of what already lay out there, and her innovations consisting of finding new ways to use these vast resources already at her disposal. Think of Vespertine, which, in spite of the detailed programming that went into its composition, was most stunning in how immersive was its psychic geography. This new single has a similar totality, but it is tentative and exploratory where Vespertine was enveloping. Björk’s sudden swelling invocation of “emotional respect” recalls “Jóga,” too as does the motif of strings-as-overture. But before that “Jóga” callback is a just as strikingly enunicated “show me,” and even if she has been bigger before, Björk is bigger than her song here. The music is a restorative: the artist nurtured by the green shoots of a chilly spring.
Alfred Soto: Wishing to synchronize her feelings, trying to figure out what makes her want to feel her lover’s pain, Björk lets her words ride the undulating string arrangement. Relationships track like EKG meters, according to Björk: a flat line equals death. Helped by Arca, with whom she has a more syncretic collaboration than he did with Kanye, the Björk of “Jóga” and “Cocoon” sacrifices the beats for melody and prodigious arrangement skills, and that’s where the track falls short. A respect for tradition that requires constant vigilance animates her best work.
Anthony Easton: How this rises with great simplicity, and how her voice moves around it, fluid flowing into fluid, is Björkian, but not Björkian of the formal gesture. For all the heartbreak of this, she seems to have given up on Barney’s spectacle for the sake of spectacle — the tight, messy intimacy in the first minutes of this track seems to argue against the methodology of Barney’s loose, gaping, excesses. Then the shaking percussion starts, and the intricate balancing of what stays and what can be cast out settles on that timpani. When she sings about synchronizing feelings, it is in regard to the percussion with the strings, the strings with her voice, her body with the outside world, and how those feelings, and how that body is broken, how the heart is a metonym for a large loss. I keep thinking about Tanya Tagaq when I listen to this album, and this reminds me of that place in Animism, with the song about fracturing: the fracture of the land, the fracture of the body, the fracture of tradition, work in discord. The discord is more agile, less apocalyptic, and perhaps as the song rises to the rigour of her unique voice, perhaps hopeful. The strings near the end remind me of the folk songs, extended and constructed against tradition, in the Danish String Quartet’s 2014 album Woodworking. Think of the geography between Copenhagen, Reykjavik, and Cambridge Bay. Think of the wind through the ice, the breeze through sea grass, the lava flowing over black rock, the sound of ships in the harbour, think of the going out and the return, and the sailor’s heartbreak, think of what it means to stay home, and the loss of an ancestral homeland, think of how motherhood has escaped biological destiny.
Mark Sinker: First response (as it’s often been with this artist): “I wish I warmed as straightforwardly to the fact of Björk as I seem to warm to the idea of Björk.” Given the difficulty of this project for her, and the pain of its genesis, this seems a bit of a dick move, so let’s unpack it. Her voice — the upfront her of her in her music — has always been an instrument of superb control and precision, if not unmatched in all pop then actually pretty close; but it’s also always been highly mannered and idiosyncratic; and never something I’ve just found myself falling into and loving. But actually, there’s layers and layers of not-so-upfront Björk here too: this also is her string writing, after all, these gorgeously tart thick tugs and surges of astringent desafinado. Bright cold empty rooms blurred as you move through them by loss, and filling up, flooding, with warring memories. Other people have been here before, scoring films especially, but the fact of the idea of the discipline needed to get this done — coming on top of my ever-so-slight allergy to her professional quirkiness — cuts unexpectedly deep.
Maxwell Cavaseno: I can’t ever have a normal fan relationship with Björk. Homogenic at age 10, paired with Portishead’s self-titled, was what gave me a voice when I wanted to cry. Rap did about everything else, but those two albums were how I learned how to shut down and have human emotions about life’s trivialities. Words don’t do it often enough; its why I don’t keep a diary to this day. Words cannot ever get the feelings out of me. That voice might be singing lyrics, but its so acidic how Björk can, when she truly desires, pierce through the banality of lyrics and reach the core of emotion in dazzling ways. So hearing “Stonemilker” is a lot like hearing “Jòga” for the first time, being irritated when your father and stepmother won’t even bother trying to listen to Medúlla even if its kinda just OK, being a teen and screaming the words to “5 Years,” remixed by Alec Empire preferably, because you detest the feelings of worthlessness that can be inflicted by selfish qualities in others or yourself, real or imagined. I can’t describe any song on this new album the way I can clinically describe things from Vespertine to Volta. This is what did it. The songs here were the first things that truly taught me how much I need music in my life, from this woman. And I’ve missed this so much in my life, that I’m honestly fucking relieved I made it this far to know it wasn’t a fluke and I can feel that way again, a whole 15 years later.