Album Review: Björk – Utopia

The Icelandic singer returns with a thriving sound world rich in nuance and detail

On her 2015 album, Vulnicura, Björk crafted an intricate cosmology of loss following a brutal separation from her longtime romantic partner. Songs like “Stonemilker” and “Black Lake” detailed a collapsed intimacy and the painful interpersonal negotiations that followed, but Björk also had her eye trained on something bigger than her own heartbreak. On “Atom Dance,” she sang with Anohni about opening herself up to a broader love than the kind that connects just two people — a universal humanistic love that encompasses the self as readily as it does the other. Björk suffuses her new album, Utopia, with expressions of that love, whether it manifests as tentative online courtship rituals, screeds of devotion to a close friend, or promises to her daughter that the traumas of the past won’t infect the future. If Vulnicura watched volcanic ash blanketing the life Björk had come to depend on, Utopia paints brand-new life rising from the fertile ground.

The album immediately announces its vitality by way of striking bird sounds, which Björk sampled from field recordings of Venezuelan shamanic rituals. Right away, her world is alive again; the birds sound more like teleporters in a sci-fi movie than any kind of North American avian call, and they mesh neatly with the expressive sounds Björk has teased out of synthesizers over her career. She’s joined again here by producer Arca, who collaborated with her on Vulnicura and its supporting live shows and whose self-titled solo album from earlier this year showed plenty of his mentor’s influence. The two artists have reached a symbiosis that’s rare among creative unions; often it’s impossible to tell where Björk’s hand ends and Arca’s begins. They both love the same spiky beats and lush, organic synth pads, and they both favor powerfully drawn-out vocal notes. Together, assisted at points by a 12-piece Icelandic flute ensemble and the Hamrahlid Choir (in which Björk herself sang as a teenager), they grow a thriving sound world rich in nuance and detail.

(See Also: A Guide to Björk in 10 Songs)

“Utopia, it isn’t elsewhere/It’s here,” Björk sings on the album’s title track, her final syllable lifting skyward. As far as the album has a thesis statement, that’s it — the idea that heaven on earth isn’t something you wait for, but something you build with everything you do. While popular representations of utopia often suggest a world under perfect control, without change and without suffering, Björk envisions it more as a continuous burst of living energy. She carries it when she emails mp3s to a love interest on “Blissing Me” (hearing her sing the word “mp3” is a joy all on its own), or when she’s busy “weaving a mixtape” on the weightless opener, “Arisen My Senses”, whose harps, birdsong, and myriad vocal tracks dip in and out of each other in a gorgeous, translucent tapestry of sound. On “Tabula Rasa”, she imagines a girlhood free from generational trauma for her daughter, a blank slate where the mistakes of the past stay buried in the past. “Tabula rasa for my children/ Not repeating the fuck-ups of the fathers,” Björk sings, seemingly pointing her words at both the father of her own child and the actors of patriarchy in general. That fresh start can’t possibly mean a life without trouble, but Björk wants her daughter to find her own trouble and solve her own problems, not carry dysfunction inherited from her parents. “My deepest wish is that you’re immersed in grace and dignity/ But you’ll have to deal with shit soon enough.”

When Björk revisits the trauma logged in Vulnicura, she floats above it this time instead of swimming through it. “Sue Me” appears to address her ex directly, and to an extent, she’s at a place where she can forgive him. After all, he didn’t generate the pain he brought her; he just passed it along. “He took it from his father who took it from his father who took it from his fathers,” Björk sings. “Let’s break this curse, so it won’t fall on our daughter.” To process trauma without letting it burden you — and without transmitting it like a virus to your next of kin — is a tricky dance. How do you manifest love without reproducing the harm it’s caused you? It’s “like threading an ocean through a needle,” Björk sings on the album’s 10-minute centerpiece, “Body Memory”. It needs levity and grace; it takes patience and work.

That flowing, overpowering, healthy love that Björk was so starved for on Vulnicura, and is so full of now, comes with an acceptance of your own porousness in the world, a perforation of the barriers between the self and its environment. For love to flow through you, you also have to flow, and the abundance of air sounds on Utopia — birds, flutes, and voice, intertwined and often indistinguishable — suggests complete surrender to an open, permeable, and feminine way of being. The matriarchal paradise she intimates throughout the album rests upon the dissolution of artificial boundaries — between people and nature, people and each other. The masculine impulse to impose the self on the outside world falls apart here as Björk encourages the self to mingle with the world, to shed the distinctions that keep the self separate from its surroundings. Her compositions confuse the line between the human voice and its accompaniment, dissolving them into each other as they reach for the same heights. The most ecstatic melodies on the album all surge toward the top of their octaves, cresting like waves, joyful for their own sake. Through that joy, Björk emphasizes the impermanence of human life. “We’re just temporary vessels,” she sings on closing track “Future Forever”, not lamenting that transience but accepting it without reservation. The body is here and then it’s not; it fills with love and then dissipates. All the more reason to fill it while it’s here.

Essential Tracks: “Arisen My Senses”, “Utopia”, and “Future Forever”


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