Review: Flutes Lead Björk Into Paradise on the Stunning Utopia
At one point during “Body Memory,” the sprawling main attraction of Björk’s tenth album Utopia, the Icelandic singer-songwriter seems to illustrate a central theme of the album, while at the same time doubting her fitness for the artistic project she is undertaking. “Oh, how to capture all this love / And find a pathway for it / Like threading an ocean through a needle?” she sings. At the lowest level of abstraction, Utopia is an album about love arriving in unexpected and overpowering ways, and offering circuitous inroads toward a new state of enlightenment. But if the method to its madness feels obscure and unwieldy to Björk, how can she distill it down and write about it in a meaningful way?
To longtime Björk listeners, this subject matter is not unfamiliar—“Jóga”’s beautiful “state of emergency,” “Cocoon”’s “beauty so immense,” “big time sensuality,” count the ways. Here, though, Björk employs a more comprehensive and unusual approach to address the issue, and delivers: Utopia is a totally singular record in her discography, and ranks among her finest work. Its kinetic electroacoustic sounds, provided by Venezuelan co-producer Arca, become her “ocean” of feeling when words can’t quite do it justice. Perhaps more than even speaking to the creative process itself, the ocean-threading analogy evokes the dizzying sensation of listening to the record.
The sensation here, of course, can be either negative or positive, depending your mileage. Utopia consists largely of long, knotty dirges that are not likely to win over listeners going into the record with any significant Björk skepticism. For those partial to her formative work, there are no capital-S singles in the lineage of old standards—“Hyperballad,” “Venus As a Boy,” “All is Full of Love,” and so on—or even catchy and woeful touchstones from 2015’s Vulnicura like “Stonemilker” and “Lionsong,” which felt like callbacks to the sensibility of Bjork’s songwriting prior to 2004’s daring a capella outing Medulla. On Utopia, Arca’s difficult-to-parse textures jostle for prominence around Björk’s voice, and even upstage it at points. They build alarming density, defining their own space and fusing into unfamiliar combinations: synths that sound like a choir, flute, and didgeridoo rolled into one, voices that sound like synths, birds that sounds like flutes, flutes that sound like birds, robots, or robotic birds.
But this turbulence allows Björk to redefine her role in the proceedings as a vocalist, taking turns pushing the action forward, with the breathless emotiveness she is best known for, and languishing more serenely at the center of the sound. The result of the division of labor between Björk and Arca is Utopia’s exceptional musical and dramatic unity. Together, the unlikely and remarkably complementary collaborators—one half the other’s age, from another part of the world—sketch an incredible monodrama, full of nervous complications, pastoral still-lifes rustling to teeming life, and moments of bliss and catharsis.
Utopia’s opener “Arisen My Senses” works like a time-lapse photograph, with the two setting the scene, letting their mystical orchestra tune and warm up. Orphic harps are fused into triumphant synth thrums that would be at home in the exposition for some recent EDM barnburner. Trap cymbal paradiddles are sped up to sound like threats from a rattlesnake. Arca’s sludgy kick drum and snares creep furtively, out of time with Björk’s ecstatic vocal lines, which grab each other’s ankles and blot each other out, until everything falls away for a final moment of clarity: “He sees me for who I am.” There’s no clear tempo here; on Utopia, pulse is best grasped by locking in with the emotional trajectory of Björk’s vocals, not by tapping or nodding along. Unlike any other Björk record to date, the debt these songs owe to modern styles of pop, dance, and hip-hop music is evidenced through floating signifiers, unmoored from consistent, recognizable grooves.
The restless “Blissing Me” poses a musical question—“Did I just fall in love with love?”—to be subsequently resolved in the transitory “The Gate,” whose ebbing refrain of “I care for you” calls back to the sensuous melodies of Vulnicura. “The wound featured in almost every video for Vulnicura changed into a gate that you can love from,” Björk explained to Pitchfork earlier this month. “Then the rest of the songs are in a new place.” The ensuing “Utopia” is the sound of emerging into that new place, as if through the proverbial wardrobe; it christens the record. The song opens with a line identifying the two most significant musical elements of her new world: “The first flute carved from the first fauna / Bird species never seen or heard before.” Real birdsong flits in and out of “Utopia,” though sometimes warped into mechanistic shadows of itself, or even the cries of an infant. A pneumatic, Stravinskian flute chorale, played by a dozen-strong ensemble, dominates the song, providing a fanfare for a moment of rebirth.
The crucial flutes resurface with related themes throughout the rest of album, connecting it as a symphonic whole. They return briefly on “Paradisia” to conjure a more patent vision of heaven, and on “Courtship,” they support a central moment of clarity for Björk’s narrator. “As you narrate your own heart-tale / You thread souls into one beam,” she sings, summing up the central drama that plays out, in sound and word, across the record’s runtime. “The love you gave and have been given / Weave into your own dream.” By this point, Björk has wholly taken charge of the project of constructing her paradise, and is ready to have fun there.
Elsewhere, though, the flutes serve as a less comforting and grounding presence. They slow to a crawl to form a mournful backdrop for “Losss,” a goth-liturgical guest turn for Texan producer Rabit, and create shrill, dissonant peaks and valleys in “Sue Me,” a complication in the album’s narrative which revisits Vulnicura’s post-breakup vitriol. They become a calm after the storm during the song’s companion piece “Tabula Rasa,” a somber, unsparing reflection on “the fuck-ups of the fathers” which imagines a path toward a more productive future: “It is time / For us women to rise and not just take it lying down.”
On “Body Memory,” the flutes’ airy, guttural bursts are synchronized with moments of “kicking in,” which come on the dance floor, in the solitude of the Icelandic mountains, and in the bedroom. The song, incidentally, is perhaps the most elaborate piece of music Björk has ever recorded. A choir, a string section, whirling noisemakers, and percussive snarls alike rise to distinguish the song’s six verses, painting separate scenes from throughout the redemptive process that the album chronicles. Songs like “Body Memory”—long, slow, and all odd, straining melodic intervals—and their attendant woodwinds will test the mettle of Björk fans looking for something else from her artistry. She has been, for almost fifteen years now, an alt-pop star in the uncompromising autumn of her career, but never has one of her records felt this defiantly divorced from the methodology of her early work.
Yet the change in approach yields fresh rewards. Utopia is full-on music-theater unlike anything Björk has yet attempted, and the rare tenth album by such an established artist to genuinely surprise with unforced and meaningful reinvention. Björk, who pairs her journey toward self-awareness and fulfillment with images of flourishing in nature, is creating a consummate musical landscape on Utopia, first and foremost. She sublimates her own role to the greater purpose, playing bandleader, architect, and philosopher, but rarely the spotlit, mythological pop soloist. On the penultimate “Saint,” she sums up her collectivist mission statement: “Music loves too… Music heals too / I’m here to defend it,” she sings, her voice nearly drowned out by smeared reflections of itself and, of course, the triumphant flutes, speaking volumes without saying anything.