Release Date: Nov 24, 2017
Record label: One Little Indian
In 2011, Björk's Biophilia pondered the breadth of the universe, then 2015's Vulnicura retreated, considering the singer/songwriter's personal struggles. Now, we arrive at Utopia. She has created a world surrounding her music, filled with distinct sounds and feelings, tailored and designed to each collection. Björk discreetly references Vulnicura's cover art on new lead single 'The Gate'.
Each music video for Björk's 2015 album Vulnicura featured the Icelandic artist on camera alone. Through her use of virtual reality, you were beside her as she crawled out of a cave and danced at dawn lakeside; you swirled inside her mouth or moved into her sherbert-neon computer-generated body. It was intimate to see and feel her isolation, her heartbreak, and ultimately her healing as she sewed up a wound in her chest and walked away.
After the storm, comes the calm. The last time we heard from Björk was when she released her most personal, heartfelt album to date, the break-up opus Vulnicura. It was an album that addressed the deterioration of her relationship with artist Matthew Barney, and mood-wise it flitted all over the place: addressing the usual maelstrom of emotions that comes with a break up – anger, sadness, recrimination and acceptance.
Björk has always been a powerful conduit for emotions: on Vulnicura, she captured the mental and physical anguish of heartbreak almost too well. On Utopia, she depicts coming back to life -- and love -- with equal intensity and creativity. Reunited with Vulnicura co-producer Arca, she expresses the album's liberation with lighter-than-air field recordings of birds from both of their homelands (Venezuela and Iceland, respectively) and lots of flute, an instrument she played as a child.
Some singers shine in bad times, translating personal pain and devastation into transcendent performance. Björk never seemed like one of those artists until she went full Mary J. on 2015's Vulnicura, a visceral breakup album full of darkness, anger and drama that got uncharacteristically specific. The follow-up finds the Icelandic musician in a lighter mood, which she translates into a sonic palette heavy on frolicking flutes and alien birdsong.
"Two music nerds obsessing … sending each other mp3s" sings Björk euphorically over harp arpeggios, while multi-tracked Björks chirp cherubically in the background. The track, a very Björkian reverie titled "Blissing Me," sets the tone for a record that's in some ways a polar opposite to 2015's incandescently brooding Vulnicura. That LP was a surgical examination of post-breakup grief framed by lush strings.
While Vulnicura, the ever so vulnerable 2015 release which detailed her break-up with long-term partner Matthew Barney, was at times painfully intimate, this new offering is gentler and more hopeful. The strings which stung with aching are replaced by an airier woodwind ensemble, and the record sounds more willing to accept spaciousness. Utopia is indeed the heaven to Vulnicura's hell.
The last material we heard from Björk was a bit of downer, wasn't it? 2015's 'Vulnicura' was a sweeping, majestic break-up album that saw her creating a raw, emotive narrative within her otherworldly soundscapes. It was incredible, but damn it was gloomy. Happily, the febrile 'Utopia' sees her on more upbeat - but no less creative - form, coming on like new age titan Enya if she signed to Hyperdub, home of pioneering dubstepper Burial.
T o talk of Björk's Utopia as a rebirth is no stretch. On the cover of her ninth solo album she emerges as though from an iridescent caul. Her forehead has been modified into a uterine shape; pearls fall from fallopian flowers. It wouldn't be a stretch either to note that after the austere, extreme Vulnicura - the 2015 album that marked the pain and fury of Björk's separation from the father of her daughter - Utopia harkens back to the nature love of older albums such as Biophilia and Vespertine, and the default lust for life Björk has exhibited throughout her long career.
"The essence of utopia seems to be desire - the desire for a different, better way of being. " - Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia Björk's music has always been utopian at its core. In the grand scheme of things, her long-term belief in the symbiosis of technological advancement and nature reaches beyond the ecological sustainability of our present; the current political climate begs us to consider on a daily basis the viability of agitprop mantras like her "Don't let them do that to you!"; even the dismayed warrior character experiencing personal turmoil in Björk's first truly 'dark' record, Homogenic, recuperated the desire to "Free the human race/From suffering" and ultimately observed: "All is full of love/All around you".
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's late-career renaissance was born out of great personal sadness and loss. The veteran Icelandic songwriter's last release, Vulnicura, was a heartbreaking look at her disintegrating relationship with artist Matthew Barney, a very public document of her strife laid bare without even a morsel of self-pity. It was a tough listen, and it's still hard to listen to.
A statement of theme for Björk's Utopia arrives eight minutes into “Body Memory,” the album's sprawling fugue of a centerpiece: “Kafkaesque/A force like patriarchy/Avoid it to confront it. ” The track is the climax of a five-song cycle of rejuvenation. Over glassy, cascading synth blasts and distorted percussion, opener “Arisen My Senses” finds a chorus of multi-tracked Björks rhapsodizing, in an abstracted display of passion, about “a kiss.
Björk is Björk is Björk: that is to say, even as far back as her salad days fronting avant-punk aliens KUKL, there's been no mistaking her for anybody else, and no possible way of burying her magnetism and charisma in the mix. She makes Big Art— massive and shiny like Lady Gaga, but with some of the conceptual weight of art world heavies like Marina Abramović or her ex-beau Matthew Barney— which may or may not be to everyone's taste, but there's no denying its individuality or clarity of vision. The downside of this is that, with her complete control on the final product, she's long had a habit of underutilizing equally brilliant collaborators, from Robert Wyatt to Chris Corsano to Matmos.
In early 2015, Björk unleashed the sound of her own broken heart, the string-laden, complex, uncompromising 'Vulnicura'. Even its artwork, showing her chest cleaved in half as she stands paralysed, was an image that hinted at what lay within - a blow-by-blow breakdown of her thoughts and feelings as she moves from uncertainty to the darkest depths of sorrow. Even on closer 'Quicksand', she doesn't seem to come out of the other side so much as implode in a burst of frustration and chaos.
At one point during “Body Memory,” the sprawling main attraction of Björk's tenth album Utopia , the Icelandic singer-songwriter seems to illustrate a central theme of the album, while at the same time doubting her fitness for the artistic project she is undertaking. "Oh, how to capture all this love / And find a pathway for it / Like threading an ocean through a needle?" she sings. At the lowest level of abstraction, Utopia is an album about love arriving in unexpected and overpowering ways, and offering circuitous inroads toward a new state of enlightenment.
"And just that kiss/was all there is," Björk sings at the start of "Arisen My Senses," the opening track on her new album, "Utopia. " When the song follows that line by bursting into a luxurious bloom of harps, accented with ticking electronic beats and anchored by that iconic voice, you're left with no choice but to let the sheer jubilance of the moment sweep you off your feet. Having exorcised the pain of divorce on 2015's "Vulnicura," Björk wastes no time rededicating herself to the pursuit of rapture.
Like most of her recent albums, Bjork's "Utopia" (One Little Indian) suggests a multimedia project or movie as much as a musical event. With its matrix of animal noises (from growling predators to birdcalls) and flutes, her ninth studio album could double as a soundtrack for a trek through the mists of the Icelandic wilderness. It's tactile and visual as much as aural, a continuation of her richly rewarding collaboration with Venezuelan-U.K.
"You shouldn't let poets lie to you," Björk concludes, in a Sugarcubes interview from 1988. She's just finished exploring the true workings of her television - information that was previously hidden from her by an Icelandic poet who had a more metaphorical (and slightly judgemental) explanation for how a TV works. Björk takes the back off the television to demonstrate how it actually works, how it can put "her into different situations" - such as programmes about the art of Iceland.
For Björk, and for her listeners, Utopia is not easily reached. On her new album by that optimistic title, the adventurous Icelandic singer envisions a realm of romantic promise and civic cooperation -- an untainted land with "bird species never seen or heard before" and with "the first flute carved from the first fauna," as she vividly describes it in the album's airy title track. But "Utopia," due Friday, comes only after the torment and desperation Björk outlined on her last record, 2015's "Vulnicura," which examined in brutal detail the end of her lengthy relationship with artist Matthew Barney.