For decades, Björk has bridged the gap between the accessible and the experimental. Her musical career began when she was only twelve with the release of “Björk,” but did not fully manifest until 1993’s “Debut.” Since then, Björk has skittered across the surface of electronic and experimental music without losing her affinity for nature and organic instrumentation. The focus of each album, from the strings and beats of “Homogenic” to the vocal manipulation and technique of “Medulla,” are well-directed and never derivative. As a result, the sonic richness of her discography is unparalleled. Björk albums are as unique as they come.
It would be easy to relegate Björk to the category of critically lauded, not necessarily popular artists, yet she defies this by centering her works around common themes of love. The high instrumental standards and appropriate subject matter for the genre make Björk something of a music critic’s pop musician. She sings of the common pop tropes—new love, sex, heartbreak—but approaches music with a keen artistic sensibility.
Subsequently, it comes as no surprise that Björk’s tenth release, “Utopia,” is a testament to her consistency and refinement. She has exchanged the dominant, industrial sounds of “Vulnicura” for a palette of flute and birdcalls, brought from her native country of Iceland and producer Alejandro Ghersi’s Venezuela. Ghersi, known better as Arca, has collaborated with Björk for a few years now. His production styles that characterized the body of “Vulnicura” and continue to shine on “Utopia.”
While Arca and Björk consistently produce extraordinary works of music, their styles are usually demanding on a listener. No one sits down and listens to Arca to relax. Björk, too, rarely makes music for lounging. Each of her albums demands that the listener dig deep and open themselves up to the emotional journey that is about to be undertaken. “Utopia” is one of Björk’s largest albums, clocking in at seventy-one minutes, which amplifies the task at hand.
“Utopia” opens with “Arisen My Senses,” which builds to life with the snaps and chirps of animals, before blossoming with harp and synth. For those familiar with Arca’s production style, it’s a classic arrangement. His marks on the song, which are jagged and jittering, are offset by Björk’s penchant for nature and beauty. Much of Björk’s late discography, “Utopia” being no exception, lacks melodies. For those that may be missing them, “Arisen My Senses” provides a framework of chords to follow.
The following track, “Blissing Me,” is a textbook Björk love song which gets to the thematic heart of “Utopia.” Her previous album, “Vulnicura,” focused on the trauma of heartbreak and the healing process that follows. “Utopia” serves as a direct parallel, skipping forth, bright-eyed, into romance and the joys of love. “Blissing Me” is painfully tender, but does not shy away from its vulnerability of feeling: “Is this excess texting a blessing? / Two music nerds obsessing” and the simple question, “Did I just fall in love with love?”
“Utopia,” however, is not only composed of light fare. After “Blissing Me” comes “The Gate,” the eponymous track and “Body Memory.” Each of these present topics of more weight. “The Gate” picks up the narrative of “Vulnicura” most directly: “My healed chest wound / Transformed into a gate.” There is reserve in “The Gate,” embodied in the wavering of Björk’s voice and the start-stop bursts of synth that punctuate the track. Love is not all bliss and warmth.
“Body Memory” acts as another direct response to “Vulnicura,” namely the track “Black Lake.” It’s nearly a perfect mirror image, running around ten minutes and being driven by verse. Across the six verses, Björk leads a choir of disembodied voices that echo her plaintive cries. “Body Memory” is also one of Björk’s most explicit tracks, which is noteworthy for an artist who has sung about ejaculation on more than one album (“All Neon Like” from “Homogenic” and “Cocoon” from “Vespertine,” for example). Her sexual references have never been so clear: “Oral, anal entrances / Enjoy the satisfaction / If the other is growing.”
The album draws further inwards as it reaches its middle. At first, Björk takes a keen interest in the social elements of love on “Features Creatures” and “Courtship.” Finding a compatible partner for love is resource-intensive, and Björk wishes that she could “[assemble] a man” and “[google] love.” New romance is burdensome. The return to the dating world reminds Björk of the casual cruelty we inflict on others: “The paralyzing juice of rejection / His veins full of lead.”
The suffering Björk has endured, and caused others, compels her to heal others as she has been. “Tabula Rasa,” Latin for blank slate (no relation to the Swift song), is Björk’s most earnest desire to fix the world for the younger generation, namely her daughter: “My deepest wish / Is that you’re immersed in grace and dignity.” It’s apology and advice all at once. This leg of the album also features a little bit of invective toward her former partner—maybe she’s entitled to it.
The final track, “Future Forever,” pulls Björk out of her contemplative pit and resumes her excitement for love and life. Pain still exists, but that is no reason to abandon the goals for a safe, protected life: “Imagine a future and be in it… See this possible future and be in it.” As the tinkling synth organ peters out, and Björk croons her final notes, there’s an overwhelming sense of motherly love and hope that early Björk could not hope to conjure.
In conclusion, what makes “Utopia” special is its history. The album could only be produced after decades of experience as a musician and a lover. Still, there are those that prefer Björk’s less avant-garde and demanding work. Some appreciate contemporary Björk’s challenging, cerebral arrangements that are more clearly experimental. In either case, people are drawn to her eccentricities. I believe the binary should be taken apart. Björk is both high-culture and pop standby. She’s a quiet revolutionary, sneaking between music scenes that inspire her music. She’s a hard-working artist, performing the simple act of balladry.