Björk – Utopia
Words by Eoin Hanlon
Björk has returned (alongside collaborator Arca) from the emotionally devastating, soul searching trauma of Vulnicura and has embraced the future. An emotional, spiritual and political extension of her prior release, on Björk’s ninth album we find her seeking Utopia – a deeply autobiographical, cerebral, psychedelic landscape filled with songbirds that sound mutated or otherworldly, flutes that harbour an airy openness of serenity and where the violence of a prior existence is prevalent and scarred over. These healed wounds remind the inhabitants of the issues and struggles overcome to attain such a state, and those who reside in this brave new world could be us. Björk’s proposal is one of incredible romance, defiant self-awareness, and an intimate relationship with nature.
The journey of (or to) Utopia can be broken down into two intertwining transitional phases: the album begins with the personal self-discovery and revitalisation of romance, love and intimacy which is aware of the pain of the past and utilises it as nourishment for growth. The second part blends in these ideas with an ecofeminist ideology which focuses on the significance of generational education. It is a world which is achievable through the awareness of prior trauma, an active engagement with the healing process and to achieve self-actualization with an empathetic worldview, all the while denouncing and defying the oppression of our current patriarchal system and toxic masculinity with a divine feminine aura. It would be safe to assume that from this description that this is not an album of singles or hits, but an all-encompassing and impassioned manifesto which is as welcoming as it is curious. In many respects, Utopia could be seen as the optimistic sequel to Anohni’s heartbreakingly nihilistic and defeated album Hopelessness from 2016.
Utopia coos open with mutated birds of paradise, brushes of strings bring an initial warmth and then the song erupts with blistering shards of synth and shattering percussion which evoke gargantuan waves of euphoria. Arisen My Senses and the energy it harnesses in the electricity of a kiss, the sensuality of belonging and the primal nature of desire is monumental. The high drama of sex and self-discovery is as anxious as it is excited, overlapping vocals soar, scramble and weave around one another indicating the pangs of glee in a revived heart. Blissing Me, the second single, slides into more romantic themes than notions of lust, and brings this seemingly unknowable future into a relatable context as Björk questions “Is this excess texting a blessing?” between “two music nerds obsessing” who form an intimate bond by “…sending each other MP3’s”. This blend of hyper-real modernity juxtaposed with seemingly innate romantic sentiment is mirrored in the tracks composition. The initial plucking of coy strings alongside the gradual incorporation of shuffling percussive knocks sweeps this track into beautiful contemplation and personal epiphanies.
If this album demonstrates anything, it is that this is Björk at her most reflexive and inquisitive which is entirely to its benefit. Creatures Features embraces this contemplative stance over a whirling gloom which evokes a moss filled subterranean tunnel, Björk pedestals past lovers by finding attributes of their character as beauty within others. “… Shuffling your features, assembling a man, googling love…”, as breathy flutes spill in to open what is possibly the most claustrophobic song on this otherwise expansive album.
The lead single The Gate is one of three bridging tracks (alongside the title track and Paradisa which are all reminiscent of an early, hand drawn Disney film, or Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s avant-garde ballet Rite of Spring) and acts not only as a pathway between Vulnicura and Utopia, but also as a metaphysical and material passage into the world and core ideas of Utopia. Ominous, damp, bellowing sirens and building synths drive this song with baited breath which is somehow as serene as it is intense. “I care for you” and “If you care for me” are chanted incessantly and almost topple upon themselves, rising in intensity and emotion. It is a gorgeous ballad of understanding and concerns the signing of a social contract of empathy and respect between ex-lovers.
Utopia is an album of mutualism, where a triad of technology, romance and nature have fused together, one where they coexist and thrive off of one another. The use of a woodwind/flute ensemble to evoke a naturalism and the idea of air as a healing and transient force is contrasted by the abrasive and dissonant electronic arrangements, with neither drowning or overpowering the other but oozing and morphing together harmoniously. The album (and possibly a career) highlight is Body Memory, a journey that battles the instinctual against the contemplative and is dealt with in a way that is as primal as it is spiritual. A choir chants and rises above the intensity of desire and the skittering and borderline industrial production makes this song genuinely transcendental. Birds cry and the roar of a big cat cuts in and out as if to punctuate the animalistic desires that reside within on a metronome. Body Memory is a miraculous piece of songwriting, it’s almost as if Björk is channelling serpentwithfeet with the neoclassical and religious overtones it embodies throughout its 10 minute runtime.
Although Utopia is an album concerning itself with journey towards peace, there are still moments of frustration which appear throughout. They exist particularly as tracks of resistance against patriarchal violence. Sue Me combines scratchy electronics, militaristic drumming, sharp flutes and a warped and spectral sample of male vocals which reverberates as a subliminal yet prescient threat. Tabula Rasa explores a similar sentiment but with the notion of progress as opposed to the priors defiance. Flutes swirl as Björk’s suggestion of a new beginning for our children to “break the chain of the fuck ups of the fathers.” Saint extends these ideas and resolves the prior tracks issues, as it celebrates a spiritual ode to the powers of femininity and womanhood by incorporating these traits into a ‘Paganistic’ deity. Saint is probably one of the most beautiful songs on the album simply because of its idealism, and the intimate journey that the album takes to get to this point makes it all the more rewarding a listen.
Björk’s Utopia is a space of suggestion and invitation through active engagement. The closing track, Future Forever, acts as the manifesto of Utopia. It’s presented sparsely and softly where her voice turns towards echoey reverb as it builds in power and harnesses a spectral quality. It transcends her own or any personal physical existence and embarks on an ethereal proposition for an idyllic world. Future Forever is Björk’s hymn to the world, and it closes Utopia with such intimacy that one can’t help but believe this world might be possible someday.
Utopia is as tactile as it is an aural experience, and the paradoxes it exists within are as beautifully grotesque and as uncanny as the album cover. This is a future that is mutated by the geopolitical devastation of the present. And for that, alongside the sheer ambitious optimism that resides within, it is an enticing and evocative listen which washes away the noise of the world we know. Utopia is an album of beautiful escapism, it is a rapturous cry for freedom and the (re)discovery of love. A harmonious, optimistic conglomerate of technology, romance and nature. Utopia is a celebration of hope. It is undeniably the greatest ecofeminist science-fiction album ever made and may very well be her second masterpiece after the timeless Homogenic (which turned twenty this year). And as usual with Björk, it remains an utter mystery as to where she will go next.