Björk has talked of new album Utopia as being an airy, light riposte to the bleak sorrow of her last release, Vulnicura. But even in her and collaborator Arca’s new, flute and harp-heavy eden, fears and doubts follow the Icelandic icon like the serpent, writes Emily Mackay.
“Hope has never been as important,” Björk said last week. “Just to close your eyes and imagine that we’re going to make it alive is tough.” It’s true – the world is having a shocker. But out of grim moments in history, great visions of the future often arise. Plato’s Republic was partly shaped by the Peloponnesian War. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was a response to the Renaissance. Other utopian works have imagined new worlds where the social order is upended, and freedom is possible. From Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World in 1666 and Afro-futurism to black queer science fiction writer Octavia Butler – whom Björk read while writing her new album – dreams of the future are often manifestos for escape.
At first, in such company, the title of Björk’s ninth record feels like a misnomer. Though in interviews she spoke of mythical islands in which women and children could live free of violence, there are no proposals for communal childcare or restorative justice systems here. It’s not a concept album on the surface. A utopian atmosphere instead breathes itself through the music. Utopia offers a still, luminous space in which to rest and rise above after the emotional violence of Vulnicura, the album that documented her split from longtime partner Matthew Barney in 2013.
Utopia’s soundworld is the air to Vulnicura’s earth: crafted between Björk and new musical soulmate Arca from birdsong, heavenly choirs, harp and flute. The use of the latter is particularly significant: Björk’s first-ever recorded song, recorded while still at music school, was a flute instrumental. There’s an innocence to the instrument, but also, as she’s acknowledged in the past: “flutes were always a bit naff”. Utopia feels like a knowing reclamation of that naffness, as well as the earth-mother hippyishness of new age music. Full of the cries of Arctic loons recorded at Björk’s Icelandic cabin and exotic birds from Arca’s home country, its feel is meditative and shapeless – there’s little structure to cling to as voices and textures weave in and out, songs flowing into each other.
Utopia isn’t so much about setting out plans for the future as offering a moment of calm in which a new future can be imagined. ‘Saint’ delicately mocks the ideal of a perfect, performatively caring woman, the kind of paragon a busy musical explorer doesn’t have time to be: “She reaches out to orphans and refugees/Embraces them with thermal blankets… her strongest memory is healing children with leprosy,” she sings. Björk’s role, she asserts, is different, but just as valid: “Music loves too… music heals too… I’m here to defend it.”
Yet into her new musical eden, Björk’s fears and doubts follow her like the serpent. The lengthy ‘Body Memory’ picks up where Vulnicura’s ‘Black Lake’ left off, its birdsong, flutes and choir unsettled by roughly bowed cellos and a dark, scissoring beat. “Fought like a wolverine/With my destiny/Refuse to accept what was meant to be,” Björk reflects, dogged by the noise of a snarling, snapping animal. She escapes her confusion by a “surrender to future”, giving in to instinct, but with a feeling that’s as much disorientation as euphoria, a discombobulating casting off of baggage and ballast.
There is joy in Utopia, but as Facebook would put it, it’s complicated. When Björk first became involved with Barney, the internet had been a going concern for less than a decade. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no iPhone. A recurring theme in Utopia, which she half-jokingly called her “Tinder album”, is the fearful rush of being an “emotional explorer” once more, but now with her discoveries mediated strangely through technology.
On ‘Courtship’, with its fast, palpitating beat, Björk’s romantic but regretful vocals twist and double: “He turned me down/I then downturned another/Who then downturned her… I upturned a green-eyed giant/Who then upturned and entered me”. On ‘Features Creatures’, body parts are mentally rearranged to fit an inner vision of the beloved, like an iPod playlist or an image search: “Shuffling your features/Assembling a man/Googling love.” The luscious, dizzying fall of the opening track ‘Arisen My Senses’, puns “www” with ”double-you, double-you, double-you”, and talks of sex as “weaving a mixtape”. On ‘’Blissing Me’, she wonders “is this excess texting a blessing?” and worries about stealing the youth of a digital native as she listens to the tracks he has sent her, “falling in love to a song”.
But there is much heavier trouble in Björk’s paradise than whether to text back yet or not. She spoke of the album being in three parts: the escape to a utopian island; the day-to-day DM-dilemma reality of life in utopia; and songs that explore once more how we survive the bad times. Into that last category falls ‘Loss’, co-produced by Rabit, in which the sensuality of pain and healing parallels the sensuality of lust, and Björk asserts, over juddering beats, harp and fluttering flutes: “I forgive, the past is bondage/Freedom aphrodisiac.”
Elsewhere, ‘Tabula Rasa’ pleads that the errors of the parents will not be passed on to her children, while ‘Sue Me’ is even more specific (Barney did, in fact, sue Björk for more time with their daughter). Its bristling beat and accordion bolsters Björk’s cries of “sue me all you want… I won’t denounce our origin”, as she refuses to allow, “like the mother in Solomon’s tale”, her daughter to be cut in half. These songs, their narrative stronger than their melody, can feel a little too uncomfortably personal at times, yet it’s from them that the album’s most explicitly utopian moments emerge.
The idea of breaking patriarchy’s cycles has been a growing concern in Björk’s work over her canon. On Biophilia’s ‘Heirloom’, she pictured “generations of mothers… like a bead in necklace/Thread me upon this chain/I’m part of it, the everlasting necklace”. Vulnicura closed with ‘Quicksand’, a song written while her mother Hildur lay in a coma after suffering a heart attack (she recovered). It urged: “Every time you give up/You take away our future/And my continuity and my daughter’s/And her daughter’s.” Utopia pushes this idea further than ever. “He took it from his father/Who 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 daughter/And her daughter,” she sings on ‘Sue Me’, after ‘Tabula Rasa’ vows to “break the chain of the fuck-ups of the fathers/It is time for us women to rise, and not just take it lying down”.
The final track, the amniotic ‘Future Forever’, asks you to “imagine a future and be in it” as Björk builds her own hope before us like a busy bowerbird: “Watch me form new nests/Weave a matriarchal dome… Trust your head around,” she urges. “Guide your sense where/Your love is already waiting/You’re already in it”. The echo in that line to an older song that used that same delicious elision between “trust” and “twist”, Homogenic’s closing track ‘All Is Full of Love’, is clear: Björk returns at last to faith that, while individual instances might be fragile, and can fail, fade or disappoint, the principle of love and openness is eternal and everywhere. Utopia begins within; now it’s over to us.