Review: Björk continues to defy boundaries with Utopia

There is no artist quite like Björk, whose category-defying music can be classified as everything from art pop and electronica to alternative rock. The Icelandic songstress’ ability to push music into parts unknown is unparalleled, and her ability to constantly reinvent genres makes her artistry unmatched. In short, Björk is the music queen of the avant-garde, and on her ninth album, Utopia, she pushes her artistry even more as she invites her listeners to join her on a search for spiritual freedom.

The album was produced by Björk and Venezuelan electronic music producer Arca. Their artistry harmoniously unites on the album. Arca brings beats with touches of both R&B and techno influences, while Björk brings classical elements. The result is an album that sounds like the soundtrack to a Jean-Antoine Watteau fête galante painting, or a short film set in the Icelandic wilderness. It’s a mixture of light and delicate qualities, with a sound like one would assume flowers in an enchanted forest would sing if they could. Utopia is an ode to nature. There are elements of the LP that are carefully put together, scattered all over the place, hard to understand and repetitive at times, but still very beautiful to encounter. It shows Björk’s earnest desire for finding the happiness and pure freedom in nature.

Thematically, it speaks on personal detoxification and stands in stark contrast to her previous album, Vulnicura, which centered on her dark, bitter breakup with American artist Matthew Barney. The album begins where, lyrically, Björk is beginning to accept the notion of falling in love again. She has opened her heart again, as heard on “The Gate,” where she sings, “My healed chest wound / transformed into a gate / where I receive love from / where I give love from.” Through that gate, listeners are led into the title track, “Utopia,” where Björk admits to the toxicity of the pain that has been boiling inside of her, and her desperate need to escape from herself and purify and heal all that has been damaged.

As the album continues, it becomes just as visual as it is sensory. With the song “Paradisia,” Björk instrumentally layers the flute, harp and baroque choral arrangements with opulence and frivolity to rival that of Rococo paintings. It also includes Icelandic and Venezuelan birdsongs throughout. Björk mixes her raw lyrics with the elegance of the composition behind it, bringing each track a unique sense of power. 

Photo courtesy of One Little Indian Records

“[We] wanted to make melodies that were like constellations in the clouds,” Björk said in an interview with FACT Magazine. “I think that fantasy and imagination are just as valid as reality. And I think that’s maybe what Utopia is also tapping into — how fantasies are just as vivid as reality.”

There are underlying feminist themes within this album. On “Tabula Rasa,” Björk sings, “It is time for us women to rise and not just take it lying down / It is time: the world is listening.” The song appears to be a letter to her daughter Isadora. Björk explains to Isadora the pain that Barney, Isadora’s father, has caused her with his extramarital affairs,  yet still urges her to stay strong and to rise up against those who try to tear her down. References to  Björk’s ex also appear on “Sue Me,” which speaks about the lawsuit Barney brought against her for not letting him spend enough time with their daughter. “I’ve ducked and dived / Like the mother in Solomon’s Tale / To spare our girl,” she sings, “Sue me, sue me, sue me, all you want / I won’t, I won’t denounce our origin.”

The only downfall of the album is in its length and redundance. The nearly seven-minute track “The Gate” could be cut down by a minute to save the listener from hearing Björk repeat the phrase, “care for you, care for you.” The production and composition of each track make it easy for the listener’s mind to wander; her lyrics are stunning, but sometimes unintelligible, and she often whispers against an overpowering beat, making it easy for the mind to zone out with the music rather than paying attention to what she has to say.

Still, if Vulnicura was the storm of the breakup, then Utopia is the calm that follows. This album is not one to be absorbed in one sitting. It must be listened to repeatedly, and each song given individual attention. Then, after taking the journey over and over again, the listener can begin their own journey toward spiritual freedom, inspired by Björk.