Björk has consistently one of the most interesting artists of the past twenty years and her first four albums are all among my favourites ever. Her middle period (Medulla and Volta) I find pretty hit and miss, but her two most recent albums have been toeing their way back up to her late 90s/early 2000s peak. 2015’s Vulnicura was her most personal record yet, covering her breakup with her partner of twelve years. Featuring co-production by Arca (whose own self-titled solo effort is also excellent), the album was Björk’s darkest and at times was genuinely tear-jerking, the ten minute centrepiece ‘Black Lake’ being the prime culprit for inducing a couple of sobbing fits. While definitely a brilliant album, it’s also not exactly very listenable due to its tone. Her new album, Utopia, remedies this by pulling a complete 180 on the darkness that defined Vulnicura, with Björk dubbing it her ‘Tinder album’ in an often used pull quote. Collaborating once again with Arca, Utopia is bright, beautiful and uplifting.
Opening track ‘Arisen My Senses’ is still genuinely stunning even after multiple listens. It begins with the big synth chords of a summer pop-house track but they’re quickly engulfed by Arca and Björk’s exquisitely detailed co-production and sound design. It is lush, brimming with positivity and beauty, with rattling hi-hats and explosions of lush synth sounds. Björk’s vocals are as incredible as they’ve ever been, with moments of both extreme passion in her backing vocals but also beauty in the chorus, singing, “Just a ki-iss, is all there is”. She sounds genuinely happy, which is very refreshing after Vulnicura.
Next track and second single ‘Blissing Me’ continues this positivity, with a vocal delivery that wouldn’t sound out of place on Vespertine. The song is based around a plinking strung melody with Björk gliding effortlessly overhead with some organic sounding synths accenting the main melody. It gives the sense of being in somewhere dense with life and full of wonder, less like the sparse beauty of Björk’s native Iceland which informed her earlier work and more like a jungle shrine. A similarly natural vibe is created on title track ‘Utopia’, which exhibits her reinvigorated love for the flute. It’s hard to understate the amount of detail that’s been put into these tracks from the production to the subtle rolling of r’s and use of dynamics in Björk’s vocal performance.
In a mirror of Vulnicura, there’s a ten minute centrepiece to the album in the form of ‘Body Memory’. A slow build, it begins very organic sounding, but a subtle switch up at at around 2:30 morphs it into something that could’ve appeared Arca’s self-titled, with lots of scrapey percussion preceding the entry of a choir. The lyrics discuss when the body’s instincts take over and, while not exactly ‘positive’ sounding like the rest of the album, it still presents the human in its most primal form as something beautiful.
I could gush about every track on this album for paragraphs on paragraphs but to save time here are the highlights. The album takes a more abrasive turn on ‘Loss’, which is a wonderful cluster-fuck of extremely coarse percussive sounds juxtaposed against flute, strings and Björk’s vocals. ‘Sue Me’ continues the abrasive trend, with heavily manipulated vocal samples making up the majority of the instrumentation. ‘Tabula Rasa’ has perhaps the best lyrics on the album, with Björk musing on the blank slate she wants for both her children and the world, ‘not repeating the fuck ups of the fathers’. ‘Future Forever’ is a perfect closer, effectively summing up the life-loving philosophy which has permeated the entire album.
Even as a somewhat biased fan, Utopia blew every expectation I had out of the water and it easily matches, or maybe even surpasses, her consensus peaks in Post and Vespertine. It’s over an hour long and there are moments which can seem superfluous, but they add to the sense of fun in the album, creation for the sake of creation. It’s a rare case in which an occasional lack of focus actually makes the album better and it certainly helps that the level of detail doesn’t go down in these sections. It really feels like an achievement and a landmark in Bjork’s career, which is saying something considering how well regarded her discography is. It’s really like nothing else.
Words by Jack Hollis