The ever-creative musical legend Björk returns after two years spent writing and recording her latest album Utopia. It marks the beginning of a new chapter in her life, and as she moves on from her troublesome marriage, will her songwriting style change to match this fresh start?
Björk has already released a mammoth 10 albums in her impressive career, but possibly none of them have carried quite as much importance as 2017’s Utopia. Whereas 2015’s Vulnicura was essentially a breakup album, full of pain and anger, Utopia has instead been formed with a lonelier, more isolated mindset, and the impact this has had musically is impossible to miss. This project is possibly her most personal yet, as she learns to love again. She hopes to not be taken too seriously though, as she has mentioned in recent interviews that her fans often miss the jokes, explaining that she is actually often poking fun at herself, but is instead taken too seriously.
Utopia has received praise from many critics since its release, but her collaborator Arca also deserves a lot of acclaim as well. He has helped Björk realise her dreams once again here, and the dark influence of the London-based Venezuelan is clearly noticeable. The album art is as whacky as you would expect, as it features her with a colourful painted face, playing a wooden flute in a psychedelic outfit. Björk has always been a very visual artist, most notably on her last album, which was paired with a number of virtual reality videos.
There are electronic influences here, but the album often references nature at every opportunity, within both the soundscapes and the lyrics. Whether she is using Icelandic and Venezuelan birdsong, or singing about the beauty of cliffs and mountains, it is clear that Björk has had her eyes and ears wide open over the past few years. One of the more unusual samples used was taken from a field recording of the musician wren, one of the only animals able to create melodies that humans recognise as music.
There is a truly experimental force that drives this project, one that is apparent from the offset. “Arisen My Senses” is an onslaught of beautiful chaos, and it sets the tone of the album brilliantly. Its breakdown of harps and vocal rounds, building layer upon layer atop explosive percussion, is oddly genius. There is a real contrast of beauty and romance, against harshness and coldness on “Utopia”.
“Blissing Me” is a brilliant example of this, utilising delicate harps, and vocal harmonies. However, the jagged percussion breaks up the angelic progression, miraculously without ruining it. The album is full of romance, but its grand love songs are not obvious ones. On the title track, an orchestral flute ensemble leads the way as a selection of whirling, swooping sounds distract from another delectable vocal performance. Previous albums have relied heavily on brass or choirs, but this album appears to be Björk’s ode to flutes; resulting in a heavenly, angelic sound, where strings and organs are used sparingly.
This airy, holy vibe may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but you would not be listening to Utopia if you were looking for an easy journey. At times, it diarises the pain of her recent past, for example writing about her broken home, and subsequent legal custodial battle with her ex ‘He 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 daughters‘.
Björk is truly a free spirit, and this is reflected in her music, but some listeners may feel a little lost on tracks such as the avant-garde “Features Creatures”. There are a few rhythmic surprises along the way, such as the energetic “Courtship”, but otherwise it is largely beatless, which actually works in its favour. “Saint” features towards the album’s closing moments, and is a definite highlight. The vocal layering is completely mesmerising, complimenting more magical flutes. Utopia is an emotional, levitating journey into the soul of one of our generation’s most gifted artists. Weather you like it or not, there is no denying her talent, and those who get it will realise that this could be her best 14 songs yet. Come and hear it at your local Richer Sounds today, and give our hi-fi systems a real test with some bold sounds.