Bjork – Utopia
Preview: Björk is back with another album full of emotion and lush soundscapes.
There are few artists on this planet who have a voice and style as characteristic to them as Björk. Over the span of her four decade career, her presence and influence in the realm of avant-garde and experimental pop music is indisputable. Two years following Vulnicura, an album of heartbreak and orchestral overtones, Björk returns with Utopia, a record similarly full of emotion and lush soundscapes.
Much of this new record may feel familiar to fans of Vulnicura. Just as last time, Utopia is co-produced by Arca, whose odd and disorienting instrumentals and sound effects are unmistakably present throughout the album. Utopia is also similarly intimate and isolated; the lyrics stay at the forefront while the instrumentals function to complement the thematic concept of the album.
The narrative of this new album is essentially the distinctive aspect that separates it from her previous recent work. While Vulnicura was presented as an album of loss, centered around her breakup with longtime partner Matthew Barney, Utopia is an album of rediscovery, focused on filling that void. The result is a record of restless introspection, and an exploration of human feelings.
For the most part, this record doesn’t disappoint. At its best, Björk’s passionate vocal delivery seamlessly blends with the abstract and ambitious instrumentation to generate some of her most captivating performances in recent memory. As in much of Björk’s discography, the musical arrangements on Utopia are comprised of a combination of organic and synthetic sounds. The most recognizable sounds that appear consistently throughout are that of flutes and birdsong, and even so, there are moments where the listener may find themselves wondering whether they just heard actual animate noises or some artificial bastardization of the real thing.
The lyrical content on Utopia is particularly enthralling. Even though they aren’t necessarily always particularly verbose or complex, Björk’s delivery often carries as much weight as the words themselves. This is most clearly displayed on tracks such as “The Gate”, where the refrain is comprised of what would usually be considered a banal or primitive hook:
“And I care for you, care for you, care for you, care for you”
Despite the fact that these words are not unlike ones you might find in any given top 40 song, the sincerity in Björk’s voice is undeniable. Given the context of the album, these lyrics raise not only the question of Björk’s specific infatuation for the subject of the song, but also what it truly means to care for someone. These proclamations of care are further reinforced by rushes of flourishing synthesizers that build in intensity as the song progresses, and as the lyrics move between “I care for you” and “You care for me”.
While moments of bliss like these are plentiful throughout the album, there are definitely parts of Utopia that may test the patience of some listeners. Take, for example, “Features Creatures”, which appears towards the middle of the tracklisting. Björk contemplates the “statistics of (her) mind”, commenting on how different features of people she encounters on the street remind her of a lover, and the strange feeling of each encounter bringing her closer to love. It’s certainly an amusing and thought-provoking concept, but after several listens, I still wasn’t really convinced that it warranted a track that was almost entirely a capella, with the exception of some ambient sounds and flutes that appear three minutes in.
Despite the fact that many songs on Utopia are individually interesting or compelling, there is a certain meandering quality to the album as a whole. It runs for 76 minutes, which doesn’t really seem justified given the lack of drastic variation from song to song. While the inclusion of flutes and birdsong in almost every song brings an element of consistency, there are some moments where they seem slightly superfluous, namely on interludes like “Paradisia” or the first minute of the title track, both of which could have easily been cut without compromising the feel or instrumental balance of the album.
This isn’t necessarily entirely the fault of Björk, however, as many of my reservations with Utopia lie in its production, in which Arca played a large part. Arca’s self-titled LP which came out earlier this year similarly showed a masterful understanding of sound design and texture, but a lack of structural awareness, ultimately resulting in a record that was intriguing, but not extremely memorable. Björk’s fiery performances alone make this an album worth revisiting, but there were definitely moments which could have been sharpened or omitted entirely.
Despite its flaws, Utopia is still a Björk album at the end of the day; her passion for creating imaginative and genre-pushing music is as present as ever, and the fact that she’s still managing to come out with a fresh sound multiple decades into her solo career is commendable in itself. Tracks such as the epic nine-minute “Body Memory” or the energetic opener “Arisen My Senses” prove that she’s still more than capable of translating her wandering ideas into the sonic odysseys she’s been known to deliver in the past. Overall, Utopia should stand as a solid and worthwhile addition to Björk’s discography.