Björk is an artist defined by her singularity, acting as a well of artistic inspiration that her peers are practically forced to draw inspiration from; a pivotal figure who simultaneously can’t help but appear alien by nature of the vicissitude of her work. Her last full length release, Vulnicura, was a sprawling orchestral affair, pairing the natural melancholy of Björk’s Icelandic timbre with glacial strings, alongside the kind of juttering electronic production that so often grounds her work. Unsurprisingly, its follow up, Utopia, finds Björk working on another plane entirely.
Björk’s oft-quoted stance that this was to be her “Tinder album” showed all the hallmarks of a perpetual provocateur repurposing popular lingo simply to cause a stir — upon listening, her less-quoted clarification that this was merely a means of distinguishing between the lighter emotional resonance of Utopia and the dark depths of heartbreak plumbed on Vulnicura seems far more fitting. However, in that snappy soundbite Björk offers up an interesting prospect — namely, the modern dating landscape as seen through the eyes of an aging player. If Vulnicura catalogued the process of being hollowed out mid-break-up, Utopia glistens with the promise of forging something new.
Opening with an incendiary description of the sensory overload prompted by a first kiss, Björk queries what it means to feel a romantic intrigue in a world both hyperconnected and increasingly detached. After documenting the modern meet-cute through the exchange of texts and mp3s on ‘Blissing Me’, Björk decries how ‘Our physical union a fantasy / I just fell in love with a song’. There’s nothing sneering about her commentary on internet liaisons, just an understanding of the frustration born of the cognitive dissonance an image (or a song) causes with no physical presence to support it. Later, in her most explicit reference to the vapid rapidity inherent to swiping through prospective lovers on ‘Courtship’, she sings ‘He turned me down / I then downturned another / Who then downturned her’. The weight we attribute to rejection on dating apps is so slight, to see it laid out as a simple chain of cause and effect is borderline galling.
The other central thematic thrust of the album, specifically that of two women twisting free from the grasp of the patriarchy and beginning their own feminine utopia a la Gilman’s Herland, feels pertinent in a far more pressing manner. Though female empowerment has always permeated Björk’s work, rarely is it more explicit than on ‘Tabula Rasa’ (literally: scraped tablet, or clean slate), as she implores ‘Let’s clean up / Break the chain of the fuck-ups of the fathers / It is time / For us women to rise and not just take it lying down’. Given that Björk’s writing is often obtuse in its poetry, such an explicit entreaty to deconstruct the entrenched prejudices that form Western society is indicative of an artist in turmoil, and a woman at the end of her tether.
Björk’s aforementioned singularity is even brought into question thanks to Utopia’s central collaborator, avant-garde pop dancefloor deconstructor Arca (that mouthful only comes part way to describing the esoteric intangibility of his own work). When describing the kinship she has with the Venezuelan producer, Björk stated “I felt that he had gone into my world with such elegance and dignity and interpreted it, helped me with what was there”. Björk’s presence as a composer on this record is felt everywhere — in the same interview she states “of course it is my album” — but as is Arca’s, and the central intrigue comes from these two difficult-to-define artists brushing past one another at fundamentally differing points in their careers.
Arca proves a competent album companion, albeit one occasionally frustratingly bound by his conceptions of what a Björk album should sound like. Lead single ‘Blissing Me’ is undoubtedly beautiful in its construction, but still very much modelled on Björk’s much-lauded Vespertine era. With the relatively blank canvas of FKA twigs, Arca wrought a challenging sonic palette, whilst here he’s more cagey, and thus less interesting. Opening track ‘Arisen My Senses‘ utilises the rushing clustered drums Arca favours, which, as a backdrop for Björk’s requisite harpsichord recalls the majestic opening moments of a bold new voyage, but it ultimately plays out exactly how you’d imagine an Arca x Björk crossover would.
Elsewhere, as on ‘The Gate’, we find more interesting fare, clouded as the track is with synths reminiscent of a whale’s mournful last breath — Arca is masterful at crafting that which sounds both posthuman and decidedly naturalistic, a sweet spot that Björk is practically the progenitor of. The rest of Utopia is populated with mechanical bird caws, bristling metallic leaves, and croaking clockwork frogs; the perfect soundscape for the part-wood nymph, part-interstellar traveller that Björk evokes with the slightest wisp of her voice. If it’s not revolutionary, it’s certainly effective, and stresses Arca’s knack for adapting to other artists’ individuality.
Accordingly, although Utopia feels stark in its difference to Vulnicura, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the requisite markers of a Björk record. As a vocalist, Björk quivers back and forth in a simultaneously stuttering and elegant fashion, finding the spaces rhythmically where other artists rarely dwell. Simultaneously, the production feels both expansive and familiar, characterised by its anachronistic incorporation of instruments outside of the popular purview and in-vogue electronic distortions. After a solo career spanning several decades, these underpinning conceits should appear dated, tiresome even, but the central vitality of Björk’s output ensures that’s never the case.
Length is certainly an issue here, as it has been with several other acclaimed works this year. To justify an 80+ minute running time you have to rarely veer short of spectacular, and there are several tracks — ‘Losss’ and ‘Claimstaker’ spring to mind — that sound a little thin. For the most part though, Utopia is a riveting listen; the sound of an artist drawing deft parallels between personal difficulties and contemporary concerns. If any musician from the last thirty years had to take me on a slightly overextended expedition, you wouldn’t find Björk low on my list.
Utopia is out now on One Little Indian Records. Order it here.
Words: Blaise Radley