by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)
At this point in the album cycle and in her career it would practically be a waste of print(/bandwidth?) to detail the context of Björk’s latest release Utopia. The expectations are high, the concept lofty, and the stakes relatively low. Nipping the always-engorged hype of seemingly never ending studio updates and teases in the bud, Björk recorded and released this record in an atypical fashion: quickly. Just two months shy of a three year wait - the quickest since the wait between Post and Homogenic - the downtime somehow feels even briefer than that, especially by Björk’s standards. Perhaps this could all be due to a few factors revolving around Vulnicura, a record that had significantly stronger legs than the over-baked and underwhelming duo - trio for some - of releases that preceded it. Maybe it was the quality of that record, or maybe it’s resurgence of popularity come ‘best of’ lists at the tail end of 2015, or the prolific nature of writing partner Arca in the years following. Whatever the reason there was no doubt that Björk sounded energized in the most sorrowful way and despite her pain, it felt like she finally - again! - had something important to say and found a sonic partner in the distorted art-ambience of Arca. Regardless of how or why it hovered around the zeitgeist so long, it was undeniable that Bjork had found a fresh creative vein and was set to drain it for all it was worth.
Cue Utopia, in which Björk has set out to assumedly conclude what she began with the brokenhearted narratives of Vulnicura by offering a record of musical warmth that embraces the romance of budding intimacy without ever forsaking the pangs of its absence. Over-publicized as her “Tinder record,” there isn’t anything remotely slinky or overtly randy as a tinder exchange, rather Björk creates a billowy postmodern masterpiece of romance in 2017, the tender ways it teases and rewires our brains and puts them on a permanent pleasure setting and the ways in which, even in the pain of loss, there is beauty. Where Vulnicura sometimes felt cold and alien, despite the soul-bearing nature of the lyrical content, Björk, again working closely with Arca in addition to new collaborator Rabit, holds onto the lush alien sounds of the former album, but adds two significant and album-defining sonic textures: flutes and birds. Flutes and mother. fucking. birds. Both simultaneously add warmth, levity, and a widescreen organicism to the recordings that hasn’t ever been present in Björk’s recorded output and as a result, what this album has to offer feels like both a progression of the soundscapes begun on Vulnicura and also a wholly singular work in her catalogue.
Lyrically, while the media’s narrative will almost certainly be the romantic healing on display throughout, what Björk has actually created here is a pastiche of her relation to romance, the natural world, music, sex, reciprocity, feminism and the titular utopia. The gravitas of the subject matter and the way the album seamlessly weaves throughout each hints at the ways they are intrinsically connected. Those damn birds even serve to strengthen this thematic string as Björk bemoans the patriarchy or a failed relationship, the natural world beckons throughout, reminding the artist and listener that there are more powerful elements at work here. Speaking of powerful elements, Björk’s own admitted geeking out over music is on full display here. “Arisen My Senses,” “Blissing Me,” and “Features Creatures” all use music as a metaphor for the pain and pleasure to be found when in love. By her own admission, preliminarily lovers exchange mixtapes or mp3s, riddled with not-so-secretly concealed devotions, but by the same token the record stores you come to frequent together soon turn into homes for love’s spectre as she reveals on “Features Creatures”:
When I spot someone who is the same height as you
And goes to the same record stores
I literally think I am five minutes away from love.
Sentiments like these, strewn throughout like running mascara, are absolutely shattering. The fact that Björk has chosen to never shadow the pain of love lost throughout even the most jubilant of songs just goes to express the duality inherent in the start of a relationship; as much as you try to fight it back, it’s impossible to suppress the thought of it all ending someday, even when it’s barely gotten off the ground.
Based on the description thus far, it might begin to sound like Björk is losing herself in love, but she is sure to not ever make herself sound obsequious or pandering. Rather, she extols the virtues of romantic love as springboard for understanding the same metaphysical experience she feels in regards to music, her own strength, and her hope for the future. Even going so far as to explain such a sentiment on the closing track “Future Forever”:
You say I mirror peoples’ missions at them
Now you mirror at me who I used to be
What I give to the world
You’re giving back at me
The message here is plain and simple: Björk loves and recognizes the way her love is reciprocated is not always reciprocated by the same vessel at which it’s aimed. Whether it’s her love of music and the way “music loves too,” as she intones on the penultimate track “Saint” or the way lovers “give back” at the end of “Body Memory,” there is a karmic balance to her existence. In the face of great loss Björk continues to love and while her reward might be the beauty of foggy fucking cliffs, she can’t help but take rewards where they are offered.
The crystalline beauty on display here is not without a few drawbacks, however. For all of its beauty and frankness, the album runs a staggering 72 minutes and paired with the mostly meandering melodies, lofty subject matter, and cloud-like productions it can be easy to tune out. Not only that, but if you were turned off by Vulnicura’s starkly honest and overtly literal lyrics, you will find plenty to groan at here too. Not everyone will want to hear Björk mention beastiality, oral, and anal on the same record. Though some of the diction might feel crass and maybe is meant to be so, it only serves to create the type of visceral reaction Björk wants from her audience on this record. In the same way that her body’s memory reminds her to dance on Brooklyn dance floor, she doesn’t want to shield us from the icky and uncomfortable realities of life on earth. Just like the way she has learned to open herself to the joys and pain of love and life, we, as listeners, must learn to behold Björk at her frankest, her most revealing, her most paradoxical, and really, her most Björk.