Premature Evaluation: Björk Utopia
Björk has already been to hell. Her 2015 album, Vulnicura, was a raw portrait of grief, written and recorded in the months after she and her longtime partner and collaborator Matthew Barney announced their separation. On Vulnicura, Björk sang about that loss with the strength of a gale, her feelings so plainly exposed that listening to the album felt almost voyeuristic. But in pillaging the depths of human heartbreak, Björk crafted her most immediately impactful and critically well-received album in a decade. It is difficult to follow a work that is so plainly personal and so distinctly driven by universal feelings of love and loss. To see an icon regarded as otherworldly and unconcerned with convention reduced to her most human was humbling if not somewhat punishing; hearing Vulnicura would make you want to extend some sort of care to her, return her to joy, but that is something only Björk herself can do.
On her new album, Utopia, Björk ascends to a paradise of her own design, one that doesn’t negate the suffering heard on Vulnicura but does provide some semblance of shelter from it. Co-produced by Alejandro Ghersi (aka Arca) and mixed by the Haxan Cloak, Vulnicura was all angled edges and hollow thrums. (Arca also co-produced Utopia.) By contrast, Utopia is a ballet, more indebted to Tchaikovsky than the apocalypse. When Björk toured Vulnicura, she brought along an orchestra, and the classical element of that performance seems to have had a hand in Utopia’s soundscapes. Built on sweeping string arrangements and the rather baroque inclusion of a harp, much of Utopia sounds like a Fragonard painting come to life; all pastel hues and delicate lace. To further exaggerate that romanticism, Björk included field recordings of birdsongs from Arca’s native Venezuela as well as her native Iceland, in addition to hand-selecting a group of 12 Icelandic women to record flute parts for the album. Björk has described her relationship with Arca as one of egoless symbiosis, and it’s true that his typically guttural beatmaking succumbs to this delicate new world easily. On the album’s opener, “Arisen My Senses,” a skittering snare serves as a springboard from which birdsongs and wind chimes and Björk’s inimitable harmonies propel themselves. It’s a lush and uncynical introduction, a combination of sounds that channel the first day of spring.
Rebirth and the optimism brought on by new beginnings and new desires is a constant on Utopia. Ahead of release, Björk jokingly referred to this as her “Tinder album,” a description that suggests aimless flirtation driven by lust and sex and the promise of new love. Nowhere on this album is that descriptor more apparent than on the song “Courtship,” which begins with a lamentation that is all too familiar to anyone navigating the often nebulous concept of dating. “He turned me down/ I then downturned another/ Who then downturned her,” Björk explains over an off-kilter beat that recalls some of the beatboxing heard on her 2004 album Medúlla, drowned out by pitchy flutes. There’s a jingle in Björk’s voice when she delivers those words, almost as if she’s grinning through them, making a joke at her own expense. Because so much of Björk’s music is tied to visual presentation, it’s helpful to look at her recent press photos to get a sense of what she’s going for, the best of which finds Björk kneeling on the floor in a tassled blue jumpsuit, a flute pressed to her mouth. She’s wearing a burgundy strap-on.
There are rumblings of new romance on Utopia as well, and it is nothing short of wonderful to hear Björk sing about falling in love all over again. First single “The Gate” is about cautiously letting new love into your life, as is second single “Blissing Me,” which concentrates on the small moments in a courtship that take on meaning as a relationship deepens. “Is this excess texting a blessing?/ Two music nerds obsessing/ He reminds me of the love in me,” she sings over a cherubic harp progression.
Playfulness is an attribute that has long been associated with Björk’s work and personhood, and it was almost entirely absent on Vulnicura. The subject matter was too severe, too personal, and too public. With Utopia, Björk becomes a voyager again, free to explore the intricacies of her self-made universe without concerning herself with adhering to any one particular idea. A utopia is, by definition, an imagined, idealized society that demonstrates a rejection of mainstream values and ideals. Because they demand near-perfection of their residents and compliance with collective values, utopic experiments don’t really succeed in practice. But rather than consider utopia an impossibility, Björk frames it as an optimistic push to a better future, an imaginary place to escape to when the frustrations of daily life threaten to overwhelm. In a recent interview, Björk described the utopia she dreamed up as a matriarchal island, populated by women and children who play the flute and exhibit generosity and kindness without hesitation. And though Björk finds herself able to indulge in the possibility of a blissful, problem-free utopia, she also spends ample time exposing the ills that this idyllic community rejects: the “huge toxic tumor belching underneath the ground,” which she alludes to on the album’s title track.
Utopia advocates for the dismemberment of patriarchy, and the album’s strongest songs carry a distinctly feminist message, illustrating the burdens women carry that men are so often exempt from. Though Björk has said that the songs on this album should not read as explicitly autobiographical, “Sue Me” is undeniably a reference her ex, Barney, who sued Björk for custody of their daughter Isadora in 2015. Björk sings that she will not “let our daughter get cut in half,” before critiquing male entitlement. “He took it from his father/ Who took it from his father/ Who took it from his father,” Björk sings, drawing out the “her” at the end of “father.” “Let’s break this curse/ So it won’t fall on our daughter/ And her daughter/ And her daughter/ Won’t let this sink into her DNA.” The repetition of “daughter” in that verse parallels the final line Björk sings on Vulnicura’s concluding track “Quicksand,” a throughline connecting the two albums.
The production on “Sue Me” isn’t paradisiacal, it’s mechanistic, made up of slow-moving pistons, mismatched cogs, the rattle and clank of an incinerator. Like all of Björk’s best work, the song is intensely visceral; it sounds like the inner workings of the mind. Björk didn’t set out to make an album about utopia, she simply recorded a collection of songs that gave voice to different feelings and ideas that occupied her headspace. Though the heartbreak of Vulnicura doesn’t carry over on this album, a preoccupation with family, and especially motherhood, certainly does. “Tabula Rasa” is a love letter to Björk’s children and an expression of hope for children everywhere, particularly young women: “My greatest wish is that you’re immersed in grace and dignity/ But you will have to deal with shit soon enough/ I hope to give you the least amount of luggage/ You’ve got the right to make your own fresh mistakes/ And not repeat others’ failures.” Those micro wishes take on a macro scale when Björk suggests we break “the chain of the fuck ups of the fathers/ For us women to rise and not just take it lying down.” That particular lyric feels especially pointed amidst the growing number of allegations lodged against men in the entertainment world, especially following Björk’s own claim that Lars von Trier harassed her on the set of Dancer In The Dark. On the song “Saint,” Björk sings of a matriarch who offers shelter to “orphans and refugees,” a clear rebuttal against the insurgence of racist, ultra-right wing factions in the US and Europe. In this way, Björk’s utopia isn’t escapist. It’s reactive.
None of these particularly damning lyrics are delivered forcefully. If we’re to believe in Björk’s utopic creation run by women who exemplify grace, then the means through which she communicates large ideas are offered up gently. Radical softness defines Utopia, and there are times when that softness can drag, when you will want Björk’s voice to boom a little louder before it shrinks. That’s intentional. The quietude of Utopia begs that you listen a little bit closer, that you forego any desire to hear a song that builds to some kind of breakdown, that you give weight to the lyrics that move you and take what you want from them. Utopia isn’t easily defined by one particular theme, it is best described as an awakening. The sprawling near-10-minute-long “Body Memory” finds Björk forcing her way through a bleak landscape, the sounds of barking dogs at her heels, seagulls screaming in the distance. The journey she’s on is arduous; it’s hard to make out the path shrouded by “fucking mist,” the cliffs are so tall that they must be “showing off.” Moving forward is as difficult as “threading an ocean through a needle.” But as Björk continues to venture through nature’s cruelty, something happens. “Vacuum-packed molecules/ Then my body memory kicks in/ On this Brooklyn dance floor,” she sings, describing the exact moment in time when everything that plagued her fades to the background and things are OK again, if only for a moment. By the end of the song, she surrenders to the future backed by the angelic Hamrahlid choir. The ability to do so was enshrined in her bones this whole time.
There is a moment in The Center Will Not Hold, a new documentary about the life of Joan Didion, when the 82-year-old writer describes loss and the grief that accompanies it as a snake. If you keep the snake in your eyeline, she explains, then it cannot bite you. Running from it is futile; that pain is a part of you. On Vulnicura, Björk stewed in her grief. She gave it a voice. She honored it. On Utopia, she keeps those feelings in her line of vision while allowing herself to make music that is giddy and euphoric one moment and brooding the next. “This pain we have will always be there,” she sings on “Loss” — which was co-produced by Rabit — before a thunderstorm of static takes hold and sweeps Björk, an artist who has always managed to embody vulnerability and infinite strength at the same time, into her next revelation. “The loss of love we all have suffered/ How we make up for it defines who we are.”
Utopia is out 11/24 via One Little Indian.