At the beginning, Björk’s tenth studio album “Utopia” was supposed to be a brighter companion piece to 2015’s “Vulnicura”, but her music had never felt so alien and unfamiliar.
An impressive late-career renaissance featuring production duties by Arca, “Vulnicura” resonated emotionally with its listeners like few modern albums. Basically a tale of Björk’s break-up with her long-time partner, it was a trip down one of the darkest paths in her life that avoided coming off as some sort of personal exhibition. Its report of a break-up felt intimate and universal at the same time, as the album was granted a distinctive warmth that made it stand out from her previous work. A post break-up record at its core, Utopia encapsulates the nervous early steps of a new romantic affair and the bittersweet cut off ties of her previous relationship. But this is Björk, so there’s a twist – there are many twists, as a matter of fact. Unlike “Vulnicura”, Björk‘s “Utopia” does get too awkwardly personal at times.
This chronicle of the early stages of love masterfully materializes in songs like “Blissing Me” or “The Gate”, in which Björk’s private life is transmuted into a series of detailed images that are as universally relatable as fitting with the album’s sonic landscapes, but it is also responsible for some of the LP’s most questionable moments. “Sue Me” reports Björk’s legal issues with her ex-partner in such explicit fashion that it’s impossible not to feel put off by the lyrics accompanying its strident, amelodic chorus: “Sue me, sue me, sue me, all you want / I won’t, I won’t denounce our origin.” One of the two tracks that do not feature Arca (the other one being the short yet impressive instrumental “Paradisa”), the minimalistic “Features Creatures” is also a victim of the album’s penchant for the explicitly intimate, remaining largely uninteresting during five minutes. In what might be a regrettably frivolous assessment, I would venture to say that while these songs obviously mean a lot to Björk, it’s almost impossible to care about them as outsiders to her personal circumstances. “Utopia / It isn’t elsewhere / It’s here”, she sings in the album’s title track, reminding us that her utopia is only private; we are denied access to it. “Utopia” operates by pairing up polar opposites – it’s Björk’s most intimate but it’s also her most impenetrable.
In recent interviews, Björk has mentioned that this is her Tinder record, a set of collected experiences of a middle-aged woman trying to find love again. “Utopia” seeks to reconcile the sense of estrangement and distancing that comes with love in the modern age and the spiritual connection of the human body to nature, its seamless transitions coming off as effortlessly as the intertwining of Arca’s electronic superstructures with the album’s pastoral tone.
Despite being described as her ‘Tinder’ album, Björk is impenetrable on “Utopia”. The album thrives in its fluidity and challenges our conceptions of popular music in unprecedented ways
Detached from any familiar musical referent, these songs are exclusively circumscribed to Björk’s utopian Arcadia; they are concerned with the creation of a fictitious space where pan flutes and eccentric electronic noises co-exist as parts of a single whole. Both the album’s opening track and its strongest artistic statement, “Arisen My Senses” might be the best thing that has come out of Björk’s partnership with Arca. Introducing “Utopia”’s unlikely alliance between pastoral traits and visionary production, a bird’s calm tweet is suddenly superposed by a set of outlandish electronic arrangements that transforms the song’s chord progression into the musical equivalent of a chain of exploding stars. A throwback to the “Vespertine” era that somehow found its way into “Utopia”, “Losss” features the album’s most impressive chorus, Björk’s voice melodically breaking through an Arca-designed barrier of anarchic chirps and buzzes.
Björk’s approach to melody and harmony has always been fairly liberal at best, but “Utopia” represents a new stage in her history of experimentalism. Her voice refuses to be restrained by any sort of static pattern, instead meandering through sonic amorphous structures with total freedom. If “Vulnicura” gave us a first taste of what Björk’s collaborations with one of the most exciting contemporary producers could offer, “Utopia” is wholly dependent on their artistic symbiosis. A good number of these tracks barely qualify as songs, and that’s not meant to be taken as a derogatory statement. “Utopia” thrives in its fluidity and challenges our conceptions of popular music in unprecedented ways, even if it sometimes falls short of making a lasting impression.
There are times when Björk’s penchant for liquidity can be taken as mere self-indulgence, the inexplicably endless “Body Memory” being the most evident perpetrator. Clocking in almost at the ten minute mark (Björk has revealed that it originally went on for twenty minutes, God save us all), it’s supposed to be a direct answer to “Black Lake”, the sprawling centrepiece in “Vulnicura” and the root of that album’s pervasive darkness. But whereas “Black Lake” elicited a deep emotional response from its very first notes, “Body Memory” comes off as an excessively forced attempt at forging an aura of bewilderment and defamiliarization, a failed experiment that ruins the album’s pace with its frustrating over-reliance on repetition.
“Utopia” is a challenging listen, a sprawling high modernist work which demands the listener’s undivided attention for more than an hour while remaining excruciatingly impenetrable. For better or worse, there’s no other living artist who could have made an album like this one. It’s Björk at her most inaccessible ever, breaking with her past self to create an art piece equally fascinating and dull, futuristic and bucolic, bitter and yet weirdly joyful.