Björk’s genius is needed more than ever.
Björk’s heart-rending 2015 comeback, Vulnicura, was the most harrowing album of her career, an epic sojourn through pain and loss that marked the apotheosis of her long-running synthesis of electronic and acoustic sounds to mimic the sounds of winter, utilizing her crisp, crunching bio-digital sound to evoke overcast bleakness. It was the sound of falling through the ice of a frozen lake and drowning in the brackish water. The album’s heaviness allowed the artist to exorcise her breakup with partner Matthew Barney, but even she got bummed out by the sorrow and heartbreak bared on the LP. In an attempt to move beyond the suffocating weight of Vulnicura, Björk began work on a follow-up almost immediately, one that would counterbalance that record with an equally powerful sense of optimism. Enter Utopia, Björk’s conceptual rendering of bliss. Jokingly described by Björk as a “Tinder album,” the LP is something else entirely, a depiction of happiness and contentment that fuses romantic, filial and platonic love into a vision of inner and outer peace.
“Arisen My Senses” immediately revises the core Björk sound, retaining that electronic crunch of footprints left in snow but imbuing it with the sound of a spring thaw, of ice turning to water as the first tufts of green peak through the frost. A skittering beat underpins Björk’s soaring, multi-tracked vocal, the two combining into a slow but nonetheless jubilant rhythm that transcribes the density of Björk’s contemporary productions into something whimsical. Lead single “The Gate” slides into joy so fast that its first verse is nothing but whirring gibberish, a medieval chant of inviting warmth. The track’s production is not, however, violently happy; instead, the track loads descending patterns against a vast chasm of negative space punctuated by moans of heavily modified voices (the biggest giveaway of Arca’s involvement). Nonetheless, Björk’s lyrics are hopeful, countering the shattered despair of Vulnicura with lines like “Split into many parts/ Splattered light beams into prisms/ That will reunite.” Placed within the album’s loose concept, the song marks the transition from the current world toward paradise, but Björk uses the narrative to emphasize a broader approach to the album’s underlying metaphors, taking love on several different levels where romantic fealty and agape share emotional space.
By taking a loose interpretation of love, and an even looser one of utopia, Björk explores a wide range of moods within the overall gentleness of the record. She also never shies away from darker thoughts: “Sue Me” addresses Barney’s custody suit for his and Björk’s daughter, while “Body Memory” traverses a minefield of strife and self-doubt. Yet both are fiercely defiant, the former in its willingness to fight and the latter in its refusal to give up hope with lyrics like “the body memory kicks in, and I trust the unknown.” “Body Memory,” a continuation and counter to “Black Lake” off of Vulnicura, is one of Björk’s modern triumphs, a complete travelogue through an emotional response that juggles all the contradictions and determination of getting over grief in 10 minutes of choral synths and beats that collapse and are reborn in an accelerated life cycle.
Having incorporated lush, looming strings as a core component of the previous record, Björk here turns to the flute for inspiration, composing music for a group of flautists she also conducted. The flutes are airy and lithe, bobbing and darting slightly like birds on branches, and they blend with actual bird calls that have been run through effects to turn them exotic and otherworldly. Bird caws jitter and screech over the flutes throughout, fusing the two in a synthetic whole that, true to Björk’s m.o., is as dissonant as it is beautiful. The title track displays this most clearly, driven almost entirely by this strange hybrid noise, crafting the sound of Björk’s imagined Eden. Flutes also lend contrast to the album’s moments of somber reflection, as in the elegant notes that clash with the harsh beats of “Loss.”
Björk’s complex, multivalent notion of love allows her to explore various permutations of devotion, both as a means of documenting the full extent of love and to cut herself some slack to play around. There’s a looseness to this record that has been missing from Björk’s work since arguably Homogenic, if not Post, reconfiguring her carefully controlled, avant-pop ambition back around the giddier, less arch experimentalism of her early solo work. “Courtship” and “Blissing Me” toy with the idea of modern romance, their lyrics sometimes funny but also shockingly evocative of tech-aided connections. Later in the album, there are bolder statements of love; “Tabula Rasa” is a love letter to Björk’s daughter that resolves not to pass recent drama onto to her child so that the girl might have the freedom to make her own mistakes, while closer “Future Forever” sees the full portrait of the artist’s paradise, one ruled by matriarchal kindness and peace.
That Björk manages to juggle concrete observations on romance, resonant introspection on deeper notions of commitment to lovers and loved ones, and sketch a vision of utopia as place and mindset is a testament to her songwriting genius, which is as on display here as it’s ever been. That she does all of this while drawing a line through her work from Homogenic to the present only compounds the sense that she is working at the pinnacle of her powers right now. Whether this spate of prolificacy continues or Björk’s volcanic creativity soon lies dormant again, one thing is clear: she has retaken her place at the top of the mountain of avant-garde pop stars, and in a time when so many ambitious musical heroes are dying, her genius is needed more than ever.
Pre-order Utopia here