Björk Utopia One Little Indian
In an age of pervasive pessimism, ‘Utopia’ is a punchline. Human instinct is inexorably drawn towards the cynical, and idealism has become a byword for naivety. But the potential for personal Utopia exists within us all.
On her ninth full-length, Björk presents her own vision of Utopia. This album will likely be viewed as a sister-piece to 2015’s Vulnicura: a photorealistic portrait of the wake of heartbreak. The dawn after the darkness, Utopia is a document of existential rediscovery.
For this LP, Björk formed, arranged and conducted a 12-piece orchestra of female Icelandic flute players. A far cry from Vulnicura’s string-drenched soundscapes, here field recordings and playful woodwind compositions give the album a celestial lightness. These elements are frequently undercut by brutalist industrial structures and glossy, synthetic textures, which hint at the reunion with collaborator Arca. In the conflation of these two extremes – the bucolic innocence of flute with Arca’s slash of electronic interference – you find the soundtrack to Utopia.
Opener Arisen my senses is the synaesthetic overload of tearing open the curtains to a jubilant morning, and a grandiose introduction. A celebration of human connection becomes increasingly clear on the touch-tight Blissing me and, later, the almost giddy Features Creatures. During these tracks, the simplicity of new love at its purest is addressed with childlike wonder; the naivety of succumbing to perfection. The Gate traces a direct line from the last album to this: “My healed chest wound” (shown gaping on Vulnicura’s cover) “transformed into a gate. Where I receive love from, where I give love from.”
But Utopia is far from a breezy, convivial counterpoint to Vulnicura’s stark introspection. Pulsating, 10-minute centrepiece Body Memory tramples flutes underfoot in favour of jarring cello arrangements, which in turn wrestle with barking samples and gothic choral swoops. It’s an acknowledgement of primal physicality (“my limbs and tongue take over like the ancestors before”). Its dense severity is almost – as Björk declares at one point – “Kafka-esque”. Loss, a collaboration with Tri Angle Records alumnus Rabit, degenerates into remorseless noise-techno. As neat as it might be to label Utopia perfect, it isn’t. It lacks Vulnicura’s sense of narrative, and the sound palette, for all its vitality, renders some passages amorphous, the flutes nearly losing their lightness. At points, Björk’s voice struggles to emerge. And with a running time near 70 minutes and little care given for formalities of structure, this ranks among her most esoteric creations.
In essence, though, Utopia is another triumph. As a spectral choir of Björks breathily combine on miraculous final track Future Forever, ruminating on herself as lover and mother, it leaves an elegiac yet buoyant echo; lamenting a past self and celebrating the new with a potent message of hope over fear. Perhaps a belief in perfection is naivety, and the search for Utopia is a fool’s errand. But to give up that search is to give up too much.