Review: Björk – Utopia
National Music Reviews
One Little Indian
Björk = Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith + Tomutonttu
Björk’s last album, Vulnicura, was a confessional exploration of heartbreak and the dissolving of a family. It ended with the refrain of “When I’m broken I am whole, and when I’m whole, I am broken.” Utopia explores this contradiction, searching for unity in a fragmented self and world. As such, the album has plentifully bleak sections, but the overall tone is uplifting and reverent.
Compared to some of Björk’s more stylistically diverse records, Utopia is generally restricts itself to a gentle atmosphere. While this might make the album appear light and agreeable, this is easily one of her most ambitious and abstract works to date. The song structures are unpredictable, the sounds are disarmingly alien and the numerous lyrical themes are complex and confrontational. Mostly, the tracks toy with a few short instrumental and vocal ideas and unfold them over the track length. While these melodies are gorgeous, they’re rarely succinct or conventional. They wind through the music freely, often amassing on top of each other to build walls of contrasting focal points.
Apart from a few small semblances of Björk’s past pop-writing (the insanely catchy “Sue Me,” the gorgeous flute melody on “Saint”), the best moments come from the more loosely structured compositions. The title track pins field recordings and delicate flute playing against shuffling percussion and pitch-shifted vocal samples, creating a mix that, on paper, shouldn’t work. However, this combination of the naturally primitive and the futuristic feels perfect for Björk, who’s more than ever equally interested in the beauty of the Earth and of technology. “Claimstaker” begins with a goofy, galloping synthesizer line that morphs into swelling strings, while Bjork’s vocal tracks amass on one another as she walks into nature and realizes, “This forest is in me.” It’s an epic amalgamation that, though subtle and lacking any definitive climax, matches the overwhelming awe that Björk expresses.
Of course, the fantastic production is created alongside Arca, who’s familiar warbled pianos and haunting vocal samples are built into the core of each track. As with every new phase of Björk’s career, the continuation of their collaboration feels more like a new home than a hopeful experiment. Arca’s tension between ecstatic romance and violent horror is the perfect companion to Björk, whose assured, expressive vocals fit perfectly into each track.
Within the general theme of redemption and rebirth, Björk looks into a wealth of social and personal concepts, helped in part by the longer album length. The pitfalls of society contrast with the wishes and knowledge of human instinct through ideas, such as completely restarting society to abolish the patriarchy (“Tabula Rasa”) and using the ancestral codes built into your DNA to address discomfort and change (“Body Memory”). She puts just as much effort and focus into tracks about the pleasures and problems of dating (“Courtship”) and the joy of talking to other self-proclaimed “music nerds” (“Blissing Me”), understanding that individual experiences can’t be removed from one’s place in the whole—the two are densely interwoven.
Utopia ends with what could be Björk’s mission statement: “Imagine a future and be in it.” While this is easier said than done, it sounds infinitely more believable coming from the mouth of an artist who has consistently dictated the shape of the musical future. Utopia (shop.bjork.com) finds Bjork exploring a delicate balance between gorgeous art songs and restlessly experimental sound explorations. She crafted a whole that defies categorization and outdoes any number of one-dimensional electronic albums, reaffirming the endless bounds of her creativity and musicianship. –Audrey Lockie