Björk’s albums have always exhibited a curious mix of sounds and styles. A single record could include explosive beats alongside gentle harps, guttural moans and shrieks buried among breathy coos; demonic choirs, atonal strings, and glorious orchestrations. As the years have passed, she has increasingly orbited a more avant-garde musical universe of long-form structures and complex experimentation, and her work with Venezuelan artist and producer Alejandro Ghersi (aka Arca) on 2015’s Vulnicura led, eventually, to another first for her – an entire album built around their collaboration, from the first note to the last. The result is its follow-up – the heavenly, idiosyncratic soundscape of Utopia.
Where Vulnicura was the bleak evocation of a long-term relationship’s demise, all elegiac strings, forensically detailed lyrical excavations of pain and turmoil, and austere beats, Utopia is its flipside – a beautiful, lush, opulent fusion of flutes, birdsong, and tectonic electronics. It is about finding the light, and the joy, after plumbing the depths of despair. Where Vulnicura was claustrophobic and noir, Utopia is an explosion of space and colour – not quite as light and airy as the pre-release press would attest, but proudly displaying its joyful, dense layers of sound.
Opener “Arisen My Senses” even sounds like a fog clearing, a renewed sense of purpose rising from the tropical steams, senses reawakening after the emotional desolation of Vulnicura. Heavy, humid beats collide with delicate harps in a steady rhythm as Björk, in luxurious vocal layers, sings of how “just that kiss / was all there is” in reawakening her senses. Sampling one of Arca’s exuberant early songs, “Little Now A Lot,” the song suitably situates the warm, tropical climate of the album’s sound, but also the unique fusion of their respective visions. As she told FACT Magazine: “After we’d taken the saddest coordinates of each other and combined them into Vulnicura, we were doing the opposite now. And that was kinda the starting point.”
The beautiful “Blissing Me” is similarly classic Björk, a celestial marriage of gentle flute calls, soft chamber harp arpeggios, and percolating micro beats that recall both 2001’s Vespertine and the more accessible material from 2005’s Drawing Restraint 9 soundtrack (specifically the glassy “Ambergris March.”) It’s as romantic and sensual as Björk’s best material, its repetitive melodic line maintaining the sensation of being inside an impenetrable cocoon of love. The theme of musical partnership as seen in the “weaving a mixtape” of “Arisen My Senses” continues with the imagery of “two music nerds obsessing… sending each other MP3s / falling in love to a song.”
Lead single “The Gate” is not necessarily anomalous, but feels more barren and haunting than some of the other material. Long silences, ambient synths, and field recordings of cave sounds that recall “Cover Me” from 1995’s Post converge on a chilly, desolate Arca soundscape upon which Björk pins her eerie vocal melody. Lyrically, there is a flourishing of the themes of love’s curative powers, the “healed chest wound” of Vulnicura’s potent imagery transforming into a gate from which love is shared. The song’s glimmering electronic whoosh is wonderfully illustrated in its striking accompanying visuals, highlighting the metaphoric prism of love that is thrown back and forth. It’s a strong transition from the darkness of Vulnicura to the comparative light of Utopia, but Björk’s plaintive cries of “care for you, care for you” do err on the more melancholy side.
“Utopia,” meanwhile, the first title track of Björk’s career, is conceivably this album’s mission statement, and musically finds her paradise in full bloom. It is a hothouse, a humid jungle of bird calls and an interplaying twelve-piece flute ensemble weaving in and out of soft beats. It is an atmosphere that recalls the bliss of Vespertine, but replaces harp and celeste with birdsong and woodwinds. “Bird species never seen or heard before / the first flute carved from the first fauna,” she sings in her reverb-drenched upper register, to sublime effect. Within the framework of this song, you can hear Arca’s evocative description of “licking raindrops out of the salty air in the tropics & listening for birds, swimming in green rivers, the fires crackling through snow … the dark grey storm and the luminous rainbow that flooded the air after” during the recording process. It’s a radiant sound world, and melodically occasionally recalls 2001’s “Aurora,” as does the later “Saint,” a song which also brings to mind the intimacy of that year’s “Cocoon.” “Saint” is a heavily layered, busy confluence of micro beats, flutes, and shimmering harmonic vocals. Lyrically, it further expounds the album’s themes of matriarchal power and healing love, but is slightly cloying and heavy-handed, Björk’s straightforward descriptions of hospitals and empathetic widows recalling some of the gauche imagery of 2007’s “Hope.” But the beauty of the musical atmosphere is undeniable; it has a cinematic quality – the filmic, sweeping flutes could soundtrack an Attenborough documentary, an essence also true of the immersive dreamland of “Utopia” and the instrumental chamber flute interlude “Paradisia.”
“Body Memory,” meanwhile, is the “Black Lake” of Utopia, in terms of breadth and scope – it as expansive and repetitive, but the claustrophobia of that song’s mournful Bergman-like strings are substituted for industrial beats, portentous organ that recalls “Thunderbolt” from 2011’s Biophilia, and a male-dominated choral backing from the Icelandic choir Hamrahlíðarkórinn that evokes “Where Is the Line” from 2004’s Medúlla. It is a song about trusting the self (“then the body memory kicks in,” she sings, after each verse of conflict and uncertainty) and believing in the healing power of nature, love, and sex. It is an extraordinary, earthy centrepiece –a slow machine that is both peaceful and grandiose, a subtle yet relentless merging of elements and shifting rhythms. As with most of Björk’s epics, it is hardly accessible but rewards repeated listening. “It’s my version of helping myself,” she told The Observer, “suggesting you have it all in you, you have all the answers. Without sounding mushy. It’s like my manifesto.”
The CD/download edition of Utopia then leads into the cerebral, spare, hypnotic “Features Creatures,” an unusual song about the bizarre feelings evoked upon meeting strangers with similar features to a past lover – whether an accent, or a beard, or height. On the vinyl edition, this song occupies the penultimate space and that sequencing arguably works better; the dense one-two punch of “Body Memory” and “Features Creatures” is somewhat hard-going at the heart of the record. The tropical atmosphere has now firmly shifted to one redolent of isolated, bare winds based on a sample of Sarah Hopkins’ “Kindred Spirits.” It ends with peculiar bleeps and bloops, and icy pan-flute synths. Musically, it is a welcome breather from the dense layers of much of Utopia.
“Losss,” conversely, boasts a stately, romantic melody, a slowly unfurling arrangement of flutes, harps, and volcanic beats from Arca and Rabit that recall “5 Years” from 1997’s Homogenic. The “soft chest” of “The Gate” returns, reiterating the healing power of love, as Björk sings sensually of “floral blooms,” “curving spines,” and “drawing orchids on thighs,” sensory images that fit neatly within Utopia’s attractive peach aesthetic. The brass that concludes “Losss” feels like a tip of the hat both to her own sound quest on Volta, but also to the texture of “Cotton Avenue” from Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, a favourite album of Björk’s and one which has a similar feel of expansive experimentation from an artist entirely comfortable and in tune with their core sound and style.
Some of the songs are certainly less immediate – the feminist manifesto “Tabula Rasa” has a deceptively simple flute arrangement and is indulgent and slow in a way that recalls the deliberate sparseness of a song like “Pneumonia” from 2007’s Volta, while the skittering beats and weaving chamber flute melody of “Courtship,” despite its faster pace, feel a little meandering among some of the more intentional material. Still, this song is the strongest evocation of the “Tinder album” she jokingly claimed she was creating – she sings of “the paralysing juice of rejection” in the dating experience. It also ends with a beautifully elegant flute solo and birdsong.
“Sue Me,” however, is extraordinary; Björk takes on the theme of patriarchal power and weaves in some of the central lyrical ideas of Vulnicura with musical vigour as she attempts to “break this curse” and affirms that she “won’t denounce our origin.” In it, she implores a former lover, presumably Matthew Barney, to “sue me all you want.” It’s a return to the defiance of earlier songs like “5 Years” or “Declare Independence,” and the haunting melody and Arca’s sleek, elemental co-production would sit comfortably as a deep cut on one of her classic 90s records as much as the experimental avant-garde voyages of more recent work. Her voice soars, and it is electrifying, its soundscape like a lost nightclub in the middle of the jungle.
A similar production technique recurs on the sparse, jittery beats and synths of “Claimstaker,” another end-of-the-world nocturnal electro-synth sketch. Lyrically, its sense of place, of home, of a tie to nature, recalls “The Anchor Song” from 1993’s Debut.
The album concludes with the blissful and dreamlike “Future Forever,” this album’s quixotic link to “All is Full of Love,” as she instructs the listener, or a lover, to “trust your head around” to experience the love that is “already waiting / you’re already in it.” It is built on little more than spare, shimmering synths and it is as sensual, gentle, romantic, and beautiful as the best of her material. Sung in her upper register, it is as glistening and clear as a winter’s day.
Utopia may well be extraordinarily beautiful, but never mistake this album for lack of substance – it is pretty and lush, yes, but there is real strength, direction, and purpose in this material. It’s quite an astonishing piece of work that, as with all of her records, rewards repeated listening for melodies to sink in, beats to seep through, and production details to emerge. It is joyful to hear Björk reveling in the full range of her voice – the beautiful trills and rolling Rs, the harmonizing and layering, the reaching into the upper registers like a bird flying up into a forest canopy. The album occupies a similar space to Vulnicura in the sense that it has real compositional depth, but there are also certain links to Vespertine and even to her earlier records in terms of its layers of sound and complexity of feeling.
Björk has faced growing criticism in recent years from some quarters for seemingly turning her back on her earlier pop aesthetic, but the very idea of Björk as a “pop artist” is misleading; even on Debut or Post, where she explored techno, jazz, acid house, reggae, and field recording with little regard for mainstream approval, she always had at least a foot and a half in the avant-garde – and her later material is the sound of a true auteur following her muse to wherever it takes her. Utopia may dispense with formal song structures, but accusations of a lack of melody are unfounded – this is an album packed with melodies, sounds, textures; they’re not always immediately accessible, but it is a resolutely lush, musical soundscape. Björk’s classical, neo-baroque arrangements for woodwind synthesise with variously industrial and micro beats, Icelandic field recordings, and the natural sounds of the humid Venezuelan jungles of Arca’s homeland – it’s a musical union and a geographical one too, an evocation of the record’s central themes of utopian love, healing, and union. Where this sense of cocoon-like intimacy differs from Vespertine is in its commitment to the communal sharing of love and ideals as opposed to blissful domesticity.
Utopia works best as a musical movement; perhaps more than any of her records, it feels like a song cycle and a single piece. It is a personal paradise of love and union, rejoicing in the body and in nature as she always has, and finding the open space after the caverns of Vulnicura. It is not necessarily a bold new phase, as it recalls elements of several prior albums, but not for some time has Björk sounded as fresh, inspired, or joyful. Utopia is a beautiful, slow-burning work that demands and rewards in equal measures: prepare for your own senses to be reawakened.