On November 24, 2017, Bjork, the trailblazing musical icon, releases her ninth studio album “Utopia”. “Utopia” is the follow up to her cathartic 2015 release “Vulnicura”. Those fans who have followed Bjork’s wide gyre through numerous genres know to expect the unexpected each time Bjork announces an imminent release. She has long ago abandoned any desire to comply with the demands of popular music circa 2017. Erstwhile fans looking for the days of songs like “Army of Me” or “It is Oh So Quiet” will find an artist who has moved on artistically. She exists in a situation where she seeks to satisfy her own artistic requirements while welcoming fans to join in on her musical adventure and latest visual manifestation. Where 2015’s “Vulnicura” was about the sorrow and devastation of her break up with longtime partner artist Matthew Barney, “Utopia” is a new day dawning. With “Utopia” Bjork looks to create a new chapter filled with fresh experiences and emotional exploration.
Bjork began work on Utopia immediately after she finished extensive touring for Vulnicura. It would take her two and a half year to complete. It is also a more collaborative effort with recent “partner in crime” musician/producer Arca, Alejandro Ghersi. He worked in tandem with Bjork from the inception of Utopia. He and Bjork along with Rabit produced the release. One of the goals Bjork set for the recording was to make something freer and positive, attempting to deflate the pomposity that is too easy to ascribe to when you have a decades-spanning career like Bjork. This decision was also a reaction to the experience of performing the heartbreaking tracks from Vulnicura live. Bjork witnessed concert attendees weeping while she performed the songs, especially the album centrepiece Black Lake. Bjork would turn to Arca after her last performance on tour and state,” the next time we tour we have fun”. That statement could be looked at as the origin of Utopia. What came out of that initial triggering event is a lush, orchestral transcendence presenting optimism in the face of adversity. Another inspiration for the album was Bjork returning to origins. One of the first instruments she learned to play as a child was the flute. On this record, she returned to the flute for inspiration and even started up an all-female group of flautists who she utilized on the album.
The sonic adventure that is Utopia begins with Arisen My Senses and it is filled with birdsong, harps and a glitchy scramble effect. This sonic coda is much like on Volta and is overarching as it weaves the playlist together aiding the transitions from one sonic tone to the next. On Arisen My Senses the atmosphere is bright and Bjork’s layered vocals soar. The theme is an awakening and a sense of enchanted sensation. The earlier released single Blissing Me has a gorgeous harp accompaniment. The song emphasizes Bjork’s statement that Utopia is her “Tinder Album”. Presented are two music nerds who fall in love over the MP3 recordings they send each other. It is a meeting of the minds, “I fell in love with his soul”. Bjork presents this modern day love song in a stream of conscious lyric that has a sunlit feeling.
On The Gate Bjork provides the afterglow for Vulnicura as she speaks to healing the chest wound that had been displayed on the cover of that album. It is a gripping song with an alluring medieval feeling provided by the flutes. Bjork attests to moving through the gate to another chapter of her life but still caring for her ex-partner after their relationship has ended. The song has a tinge of the yearning and heartbreak that is found on Vulnicura but also evidence that the dark night of the soul she experienced has passed. The title track Utopia is a beautiful rococo/baroque concoction with a scintillating dose of glitchiness added to the mix.
It is when we reach the second half of the album that Bjork really displays the goods. Body Memory is stunning. The sonics display Bjork’s ever-present search for a marriage of nature and technology and their interaction. The lyrics speak to the phenomena of the body’s ability to continue functioning when the mind and heart cannot deal with trauma. The song blends elements of sensuousness and drama, to produce a track that is glorious and epic. I give Bjork special points for the use of the word “Kafkaesque”, I love her for that alone. Bjork follows up this extraordinary track with the otherworldly Feature Creatures. The track is like the capturing of a groan from the universe in interstellar space. The song is ghostly and haunting and not to be missed.
The triad of songs to follow, Loss, Sue Me, and Tabula Rosa all seem to refer to the Bjork’s recovery from her break up with Barney. Loss provides a glitchy harp laden track that discusses the sadness encountered after relationship breakups. Sue Me reflects the custody battle that ensued between Bjork and Barney over their daughter. It has a very Biophilia sonic vibe with its choppy, glitchy percussion along with Bjork’s soaring vocal. Bjork is clear in the lyrics she does not want her daughter to suffer for the mistakes the two have made. She is willing to take the pain to spare her, “like the mother in Solomon’s day… I am willing to forgo my desire, not to hurt her.” The lyrics also speak to a new day when the male patriarchy is broken and the problems it created are gone producing Utopia. The stunning Tabula Rosa ends this thematic triad. Bjork encourages and emphasizes the importance of cleaning the slate personally and universally. She states this in lyrics like “let’s put it all on the table… tabula rasa for my children … break the chain of fuck-ups of the father.” These confrontational thoughts are couched in an ethereal flute and Bjork’s delicate vocals.
Claimstaker is another one of the many highlights on the album with its cool intro filled with industrial pixilation and “ghosts in the machine” vibe. This is the closest Bjork gets to her dance days of long ago but gives it an iconoclastic spin. Paradisa is an amuse bouche that sets the listener up for the final two tracks. Saint is breathtaking and reminds me of Kate Bush’s 2005 album “Aerial”, with the inspired use of birdsong to punctuate the sonics. There is an awe-inspiring spirituality that is palpable on the track. The vocals and the flute are almost like chanted prayers that make it delicate and celestial. The haunted guitar at the end is also something very special making for a spectacular track and another song not to miss. Bjork with Future Forever provides an ethereal farewell to the musical utopia she has created. She combines a wavery synth with an atmospheric interstellar feeling to provide an alluring track. Additionally touching is the lyric, “What I gave the world, you gave back to me”. Bjork finishes strong with this selection completing the story she aims to tell throughout the recording.
Utopia is a wondrous miasma of sonics and conceptual ideas that tap both the subconscious and conscious. The album again confirms that long ago Bjork moved beyond Top 40 classifications and the inane pursuit of hit singles into a realm few artists endeavour to pursue. She has fearlessly followed her muse and inner voice wherever it has led and become a revered musical artist. Her unmatched ability to recreate herself and intestinal fortitude makes her a treasure and Utopia is once again evidence of her utterly brilliant creativity. Utopia is not for the timid unadventurous listener. It is challenging and unlike anything else on offer but that is what makes it such a rewarding experience to encounter.
Pre-order Utopia HERE