Björk – Utopia Album Review

Utopia cover album

Utopia doesn’t move much past its status as a sequel and doesn’t really try to.

One Little Indian

 November 24, 2017


In 2015, Avant-Pop sensation Björk stunned the world with Vulnicura—a comeback album no one was expecting. With it she proved, after over a decade of middling or just-pretty-good albums, that she could still make heartfelt, forward thinking Electronica. Lyrically, the album documented Björk’s devastating breakup with artist Matthew Barney and her consequent healing process. She produced the album’s electronics collaboratively with Arca and The Haxan Cloak—two widely lauded producers on the cutting edge of today’s Experimental Electronic scene. In terms of lyrical power, vocal performance, and electronic production, the album was top-notch, easily ranking with Björk’s other experimental classics Homogenic and Vulnicura. It blended Björk’s Pop sensibilities with her Avant-Garde aspirations relatively well: though the album runs a little long, its unique use electronic space—particularly on “Black Lake”—helps to give the listener a sense of the engulfing sorrow at that album’s center, which pervades through every interstice, every piece of Pop bliss, everything. Now, two years later, Björk returns with Utopia, a kind of companion to Vulnicura, which she has famously (and sensationally) called “her Tinder album”—a post-breakup album. Arca returns and actually takes on a greater role in terms of production, only helped by Rabit on one track (“Losss”); neither takes any part in the album’s mixing (which was handled mostly by The Haxan Cloak on Vulnicura). With these players in place and with the album’s status as a sequel in mind, on Utopia faces the challenge of not reproducing or simply inverting her previous work—a task it seems to keep in mind but never really confront. Rather, Utopia contents itself with further exploring the sonic and lyrical ideas first presented on Vulnicura, and instead of stepping forward with Björk’s sound, steps to the side, palpably deferring the question of innovation.

The album’s first single and third track “The Gate” exemplifies this issue rather well. Its minimal production, slow reveal, and sing-along chorus make it easy to pair with Vulnicura’s “Lionsong”. They both open with similarly harmonized Björk voices, and in both, instrumental parts match and follow vocal melodies. Lyrically the songs both hope that the love given by the speaker will be reciprocated by the person (or Gate) loved. The only significant sonic difference seems to be the choice of instrumentation, which applies to both albums in general: whereas Vulnicura prefers deep, sorrowed strings, Utopia chooses bright, vibrant flutes—literally every song on Utopia, except one, has a flute.

And that one, the opener “Arisen My Senses”, probably stands out as the album’s best track. Its striking, immense, idyllic (utopian) synth chords—played on some amalgamation of a horn-like and string-like, Hudson Mohawke-y digital synths—immediately wrap the listener in the crushing exaltation, the uplifting devastation, of love. They say from the record’s first rotation: this is a love album. Björk sings about “weaving a mixtape”, and laughs while saying “On www”—re-feeling those feelings of perfectly childish desire; experiencing once more that first blush of youth.

But on other tracks, like the quiet, sparse “Features Creatures” the mask of the digitally savvy ingénue falls flat. Björk sings, “When I spot someone / Who is same height as you/ And goes to same record store / I literally think I am five minutes away from love” and talks about “Googling love”—it’s silly doggerel like a tweet or a tinder bio or an Instagram pic description.

In general the album keeps to a steady pace, and only a few songs approach the complete stasis of Vulnicura’s center, but the album’s 71-minute runtime definitely overstays its welcome. Its entire final side, the last five tracks, are mostly beatless, subdued, and contemplative tracks that don’t add much the album’s narrative or sonic originality (“Future Forever” relies heavily on the themes of “All is Full of Love”, and even quotes that classic track).

As a whole then, Utopia is a scattershot retread of the Vulnicura sound, its only real differences being aesthetic choices that align with the album’s obverse and complementary narrative—in short, Utopia doesn’t move much past its status as a sequel and doesn’t really try to. If you’re itching for more Björk, and you’re a longtime fan of Arca, you will get exactly what you expected, and you won’t be disappointed—but if you seek for a world-class Electronica album, there are better places to look.

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