everything björk’s utopia will make you feel, think and do - track by track
Spoiler: It’s really fucking lovely.
Björk's albums have always been emotional. Blessed with a voice that could pierce concrete, caress snow without dislodging a single flake or knock your head right off and shoot it towards the moon -- often in the space of one verse -- she's created nine albums of art-pop perfection that work for the head, the heart and sometimes, if you're flexible enough, the feet. But Björk's emotional landscape was brought into sharp focus on 2015's inky black Vulnicura, an hour-long, diary-like aural re-enactment of the various stages of a heart-shredding break-up (with artist husband Matthew Barney). Where prior albums like 2007's Timbaland-assisted Volta and 2011's ambitious Biophilia zoomed out to focus on more global concerns, Vulnicura placed the listener in the eye of the storm, the album's ten-minute centrepiece Black Lake, all swarming strings and hollowed out beats, among her most devastating songs.
Vulnicura's follow-up is this week's Utopia, an album that musically reflects the vibrancy of its artwork and the escapism dictated by its title. It's an album she's jokingly referred to as her “Tinder album”, while also referring to it as a sort of anti-Trump mission statement. “He got elected when I was two years into the album,” she told The Observer, “and I felt like, OK, it’s really important now to be intentional. If you feel this world is not heading the right way, you have to be DIY and make a little fortress, over here to the left.” It's a sun-kissed fortress built from delicate harps, fluttering bird song, head-knocking beats (created with Vulnicura collaborator Arca) and a consistent sonic palette that makes you believe you're floating down a gently undulating river somewhere lush and clammy.
Here's a track-by-track review of a late contender for 2017's best album:
Arisen My Senses
Opening with distant bird call and a weird electronic squiggle, Arisen My Senses soon unfurls like one of those massive tropical flowers that draw you in with their delicacy but could probably kill you. This song probably won't kill you but it could possibly suffocate you with its beauty, which is hyperbolic but this is Björk and you can't really get away with saying “It's got some nice singing on it,” which it does actually but that's not the point. There's so much going on here -- vocal melodies tumble over big crashing beats, while various lyrics seems to sprout out at different angles -- that it's hard to pinpoint exactly where the song is vis-a-vis its own start and end.
For seven harp-assisted verses Blissing Me tiptoes coyly around a chorus that never arrives. While Arisen My Senses envelopes the listener with warm, rainforest water, Blissing Me is like being playfully flicked with icy droplets. It feels like a sharpening of the senses. All of them. Lyrically it's a lovely tale of a platonic relationship -- forged via the sharing of MP3s -- on the cusp of turning into something more physical before -- plot twist - Björk ends with the line “did I just fall in love with love?” Dreamy.
You'll know this one by now. The album's first single bridges the gap between Vulnicura and Utopia, the open chest wound mentioned in the former's lyrics, and on the cover art, now transformed into a gate that allows new love to grow. It's typical Björk; initially formless, head-spinningly complex and utterly beautiful.
Alongside a tiny swan foetus (perhaps a nod to the cover of the similarly delicate Vespertine), Utopia's artwork features a flute, an instrument Björk's played since she was 12, and sure enough the title track's first ninety seconds is pure woodwind. In fact, save a gently pulsating beat and the recurring squawk of a bird that interrupts the 17 or so melodies, there's not much else too it. As happens throughout the album, Björk's lines are often multi-layered and buried, as if she's talking over herself. On Utopia it's the first time that feels a little distracting, the song's presence lost on the shifting sands.
At least in terms of length, the epic Body Memory is this album's Black Lake. Inspired by listening to an audiobook version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead while laying on some moss, Body Memory is the empowered resolution to Black Lake's cell-shifting heartache. Musically we're in harsher territory to what's gone before; the beats feel more jagged, more urgent, while the choir's distant call and response swirls around like a warning. Lyrically, it's typical Björk: “The snow in winter: I'm walking hills and valleys / Outdoors is mystical fog -- this fucking mist! / These cliffs are just showing off” she trills at one point, before moving through destiny, love, sex, motherhood and nature. It's a winding journey, one that -- even when you're not sure of the narrative exactly -- feels like a giant cleanse. “It’s my version of helping myself,” she told The Observer, “suggesting you have it all in you, you have all the answers. Without sounding mushy. It’s like my manifesto. Let’s do this!”
The weather on Björk's utopian island has shifted. While the album's first half is all warmth, Features Creatures is buffeted by an electronic swarm that sounds like gusts of wind. Lyrically it's one of the album's most interesting conceits; the idea that your heart's muscle memory -- triggered perhaps by the sight of a beard, or a silhouette in a record shop - can cause a flood of old, mostly comforting emotions to swarm your brain. The song's sketch-like production is a welcome breather.
The flutes are back! While their appearance on Utopia was almost distracting, they weave their way through the springy fantasia of Courtship much more easily. It's also the first time the album's BPM rises noticeably, the itchy beat flitting around the sides of the song like a pinball.
Co-produced by industrial beatmaker Rabit, aka Eric Burton, the future live favourite Losss carries echoes of her 1997 classic Homogenic in terms of its splintered dynamics. Once again she conjures up a delicate harp-assisted landscape, but this time the beauty is disrupted by a beat that sounds like two tectonic plates scraping against each other. It's unsettling, and a clever injection of scuffed up brutality in an album that occasionally feels like its gliding along on a cloud.
That cloud is properly dark grey on this sudden lurch back into the Matthew Barney narrative (the title refers to their fraught divorce). While the beats vibrate and ricochet around the album's first big chorus (“sue me all you want!” she trills), Björk ecstatically dishes out a quick thesis on how to bring patriarchal rule to an end (“they just fucked it all up”). Filtering her feminism through a mother's instinct to protect her daughter, she sings, “He took it from his father, who took it from his father, who took it from his father; let's break this curse, so it won't fall on our daughter and her daughter.”
If Sue Me's plainness feels a little too much like a step back towards the personal drama of Vulnicura, the appropriately-titled Tabula Rasa is the calm after the storm. “Let's put it all on the table” she sings, before returning to Sue Me's central theme, her voice punctuating each syllable as she sings “not repeating the fuck ups of the fathers”. It's a song sung directly to her children; “Make your own fresh mistakes” she sings, promising not to load them up with too much excess emotional baggage. Towards the end it becomes almost celestial, with the strings suddenly going Full Disney, while a huge heaven-ready organ plays over distant rainfall. If you listen to it with headphones in chances are you'll levitate.
One of the shortest songs on the album, Claimstaker glides along on a fidgety synth line and strings that rise and fall elegantly enough. It's pretty, don't get me wrong, but at 70 minutes long, Utopia can sometimes feel slightly aimless and could have done with a quick trim.
104 seconds of flute, bird song and the slight whiff of Moomins.
At first this feels like another circular experiment in bird song folk-tronica but once it kicks into gear Saint becomes one of the album's most straightforward pop moments. There's a really lovely, almost overwhelming elegance about the verses that eventually bubbles over into a gorgeous musical coda where the chorus should be. Throughout, Björk's multitracked voice soars and glides over itself, with layers and layers of Björk creating a kind of sky-scraping vocal soufflé of wonderment… Look, it's hard to describe okay. It's just really fucking lovely.
That loveliness is squared on the closing Future Forever, which takes all the album's best moments and weaves them together to make a delicate lace bodysuit you don't want to take off. It's probably her most exquisite album closer since Homogenic's All Is Full of Love (interestingly, they share a specific lyric but I'll let you work that out); a spacious, patiently unfurling ode to rebirth, renewal and finding your own utopia. “Hold fast for love, forever.”