Björk Guðmundsdóttir, the most famous singer/songwriter from Iceland, is most-understatedly avant-garde when it comes to her music. One of her strengths, beside her unique voice and use of instrumentation, is her manipulation of song structure. An eight-minute Björk is nothing out of the ordinary, and neither is a record played by instruments of her very own design, something that she did on Biophilia, an album/app designed to help teach children music. Where Björk succeeds the most however, is in pure, euphoric emotion, and her highly-concentrated emotional energy erupted two years ago with the release of Vulnicura, a dark and haunting record that focused solely on the singer’s divorce.
“Maybe I understood, as a musician”, Björk revealed in an interview with Dazed, “that if that album was going to make any sense, I had to not beautify anything – just show all the rawness and the visceral core.” It was a very different record for Björk, who worked with Arca (an experimental-electronic producer with credits on both Kanye West’s Yeezus and FKA Twigs’ EP2), that took me over five listens and a whole MoMA retrospective to really appreciate. Her newest record however, is quite the opposite, thematically at the very least, as Utopia details what she has called her “Tinder album.”
“I like things that are pretty, and I like things that are very brutal,” she explained. ““It’s natural for me, maybe more subconsciously than consciously, that whatever I do on one album, I tend to do the opposite of on the next… I did Homogenic and that was very big – big beats, touring, a billion gigs around the world, probably the most Rock’n’Roll I’ve ever been – and then I went home and did Vespertine, which was very petite and micro. I think that the same thing has happened here. Vulnicura was very, like, warts-and-all – you’re in the centre of something very personal. I think I needed to zoom out and find a new manifesto.”
This new manifesto, the idea of heaven in opposition to Vulnicura‘s hell, is still aggressively complex, made ironic by her comments to detail the nature of her relationship in the record as: “this is my dating album. Let’s just leave it there.” Over the course of Utopia’s hour and eleven minutes, Björk seems to throw traditional song structure out of the stratosphere, something that was once a strength now feeling, at times, borderline uncomfortable. Her idea of heaven, more astral than paradisal, sound exhausting and manic, with a sound wall of flutes and vocal layering fighting for the same spot in the frequency range almost throughout the entire course of the album. It’s imaginative yet chaotic, like her description of how a television works.
The music of Utopia is mainly background noise for Björk’s repetitive mouth poetry and overly emphasized Icelandic accent, and it’s a shame because there are a lot of really great moments on the record that never amount to anything: the first minute of “Blissing Me,” the “I care for you” chorus and descending low frequency synths of “The Gate,” and even a glimmer of song in “Saint.” Nonetheless, all of these great ideas exist as an experimental box-of-ideas approach that spotlights tiny bits in what was essentially a layered vocal and musical landslide. It’s an incredibly weird record, which is to be expected and even usually loved by a great musician and songwriter like Björk, but Utopia might somehow even be too weird for Björk.
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