“My headphones / They saved my life / Your tape / Lulled me to sleep, to sleep, to sleep”, sings Björk on the final track of her 1995 sophomore record, Post. ‘Blissing Me’, the second single from Utopia, finds her treading similar lyrical ground: “Sending each other MP3s / Falling in love to a song” she croons, her voice gliding over folky and increasingly layered waves of plucked strings. If there are two themes that have remained in constant use throughout Björk’s career, they are love, and an unwavering enthusiasm for music itself; her return this year is marked by an ambitious collection of songs exploring those same ideas and her efforts to reconcile them with her own recent personal past and the nature of modern romance, on what she has called her “Tinder album”. What she conjures is a panoramic and ambitious record full of whimsical flutes, kinetic percussion and, naturally, her inimitable vocal presence.
Two themes that have remained in constant use throughout Björk’s career are love and an unwavering enthusiasm for music itself
Utopia comes two years after 2015’s Vulnicura, a brooding meditation on Björk’s separation from ex-husband Matthew Barney, and the juxtaposition in tone is immediate. Album opener ‘Arisen My Senses’ is layered with colliding vocal melodies, soaring across a cathartic barrage of synths, harps and clattering percussion; it ranks among her most bombastic efforts, fueled both by the giddy excitement of new love and the disoriented panic of overthinking every facet of a new relationship: “Am I keen, or keen, or not keen?”. Björk finds herself rejuvenated by desire in the first stretch the album, both romantic and sexual, and the physical way in which she conceives of affection – “I reserve my own intimacies / I bundle them up in packages / My rawward longing far too visceral” – is complemented by the tactile crispness with which these songs are performed and produced.
The album plays out very much like a musical landscape (or, indeed, an island), from the pastoral flutes of ‘Utopia’ and ‘Paradisa’ to the cavernous soundscape of ‘The Gate’; from the animal sounds interpolated throughout the record to the tectonic heaviness of co-producer Arca’s percussion on tracks such as ‘Sue Me’. It is this late stretch of the album that sees Björk retreading her split with Barney, but finding herself newly matured and empowered; “Soft is my chest, I didn’t allow loss / Loss make me hate, didn’t harden from pain” she proclaims on ‘Losss’, a beat-heavy highlight that escalates into an industrial frenzy, before airing out recent legal conflicts with Barney on the defiant, cacophonous ‘Sue Me’.
It remains true to her catalogue in all the ways it should as something original and untethered from any concern for convention
For all its eccentric strengths and delirious highs, Utopia is not without its flaws; some songs, such as the title track and the nearly ten-minute ‘Body Memory’, do have the tendency to outstay their welcome. As exciting as it is to see Björk so driven, especially nine albums into her career, she does not always tread the line between ambition and indulgence with complete elegance. Perhaps equally frustrating is the sense of formlessness that mars these songs on occasion; Björk’s early output, influenced by the likes of trip-hop and dance music could rely on repeated grooves and beats to keep the listener engaged. As on Vulnicura however, Björk feels out many of these tracks at her own pace, one that may leave listeners feeling disoriented or impatient with her repeated vocal melodies.
Utopia, as with any Björk album, is not for everyone; in fact, it is often not for me. But it remains true to her catalogue in all the ways it should, as something original, untethered from any concern for convention, accessibility, or coolness; her vision is always entirely her own. To invoke her early days once again, Björk would insist that “There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic / To human behavior” on the very first track of her 1993 album Debut, while finding it “yet so, yet so irresistible”. 24 years on and still grappling with the unpredictability of love, Björk sounds no closer to figuring people out, and no less thrilled by that.