In ‘Utopia,’ Björk finds her happy place

Icelandic singer’s latest work is breathtaking depiction of a world full of love

Utopia_Björk

Björk's newest album "Utopia" is a somewhat flawed but ultimately sweet and optimistic ode to love, both new and old. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Björk has always been fascinated with the idea of love. From her genre-defying pop records of the ‘90s and early 2000s to her more experimental recent work, Björk’s music has focused on relationships and the feelings involved with them. “Utopia” — her most recent album — stands as a testament to the concept of love as a whole. On it, she declares not just her love for romantic partners who have come and gone, but also her love for the world and the human race. 

“Utopia” stands as a sonic and thematic contrast to her 2015 album — “Vulnicura” — which was made in response to her break-up with her long-term partner and American artist Matthew Barney. That album’s dark sounds and harsh electronic beats are contrasted on “Utopia” by sweet and inviting melodies created by a vast array of flutes and strings. 

Björk created the underlying sound of the album with a 12-piece Icelandic section that played the music she composed while wandering the Icelandic countryside. The result sounds like the soundtrack to a nature documentary about the pixies and fairies living in the mountains of Scandinavia. It’s so symphonic and impassioned that one can feel all the happiness and love which went into creating the album. Björk has successfully created a work full of soundscapes that invite the listener to feel all of the love and peace the world has to offer. 

The album is at its best when it is backed the skittery and futuristic electronic percussion from Venezuelan music producer Arca, who co-wrote and co-produced a sizable amount of the album with Björk. The best example of their collaboration is the opening track “Arisen My Senses.” While starting out with a birdcall sample and a simple but inviting string passage, Arca’s rattling percussion blasts its way into the track about 40 seconds in and mixes beautifully with the ascending strings and Björk’s impassioned vocals. 

The track’s fusion of classical music and electronic club sounds — the classic Björk sound she made famous on albums like “Homogenic” — make it one of the best moments on the entire album. Arca’s drums on the song and others like the title track and “Courtship” help to keep the music tied to an earthly sound instead of letting it drift away in the ethereal airiness of Björk’s string and flute sections. 

However, the album is not perfect. It’s pretty long at 72 minutes and doesn’t really progress sonically or thematically. The songs on “Utopia” blend together at times due to flute sounds and melodies sounding very similar on a lot of tracks. This causes the album to lose steam towards the end since most of its big ideas have been exhausted. Also, the songs on “Utopia” lack a familiar structure and instead float around like a formless piece of abstract art rather than a song. This works very well in the context of the album due to the evocative and emotional sounds of these tracks, but the lack of a rigid and defined progression in the songwriting could potentially turn off some listeners. 

A mention must also be made about the lyrics on the album. Generally, they run the spectrum from sweet and innocent to a bit cringey. Björk sings a lot on “Utopia” about her first interactions with potential partners and how she interacts with them. There are some words dedicated to sharing her love of music with her partner, like on “Blissing Me,” where she sings about sending MP3 files of her favorite songs to her new boyfriend. This reference is hilariously outdated, which is also what makes it a cute sentiment and adds to overall feeling of jubilance on the record. 

Other times, the lyrics can come off as awkward, like on “Features Creatures.” Her lyrics about falling in love with a man with the same accent and beard as her ex-boyfriend sound odd coming from the 52-year-old mouth of Björk. It just sounds amateurish and unrefined, two qualities not generally associated with her music. Luckily, the innocent and joyous lyrical moments are far more prevalent on “Utopia” than the cringe-worthy ones. 

“Utopia” is difficult to comprehend album on the first listen. It’s full of dense layers of sound and experimentation which will take months — if not years — to fully unpack. Björk is one of the most experimental and inventive musicians of all time and on “Utopia” she has continued to innovate in a brilliant manner. She has delivered an album full of warmth and optimism that is very much needed in 2017. It may not be her greatest record, but the worst Björk album is better than anything most artists could ever dream about making in their lifetimes. 

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