Björk seeks a new 'Utopia'
In the first month of 2015, when, in Iceland, the moon is out longer than the sun, Björk’s eighth studio album Vulincura was leaked. The album, like the season, is bleak and devastating. It’s a powerful expression of trauma by the avant-garde artist, the musical accompaniment to a breakup that left her lost, angry and distraught. This was her first pairing with Venezuelan experimental producer Arca, a master of dark soundscapes, and the two plunged into the depths on Vulincura, creating a work that seethed with pain and screamed at the one who wronged her.
The Reykjavik-based talent thrives on consistent unpredictability. But Vulnicura still stands out as the moment when all the peculiarity became clear. It was a watershed, and for the first time in a decade her feelings were more powerful than the disguises under which she so often hides. On that album, she breaks free, naming her suffering more plainly than ever: “My soul torn apart / My spirit is broken.” These are the words of someone who has exploded and has just begun to assess the pieces. Björk, though, is not just anyone, and if we’ve learned anything from the era of reality television and celebrity breakdowns, it’s that suffering for the famous is never a personal affair. The public must have its share. Björk elaborated on this in an interview with The Guardian, in which she discusses guiltily drinking champagne after a particularly morbid show, the audience in complete tears while she, rather than emotional, was simply drained. The show, and by extension the pain she once felt, was no longer for her, but the audience. The title of that album, Vulnicura, is translated to “Cure for Wounds,” and perhaps nearly three years in, sitting with and touring those songs, she found the release they aimed to provide.
That release of pain seems to be the thesis of Utopia, her ninth studio album. This is an album about rediscovery, when your open cut finally heals and you begin to let yourself try and fail again. The result is nearly childlike, sometimes teenage, as she remembers the excitement of new relationships. The small moments are enormous on this album, and even the most minimal of flirtations can leave her on cloud nine. On “Arisen My Senses,” the opener, a kiss realigns her entire cellular makeup. The first verse of “Body Memory” is full of forceful assertions about the beauty in the world: “Adore this mystical fog! This fucking mist!” These are experiences — worlds of feeling — that she may have once known, long ago, but that she lost somewhere along the way. Never on Vulnicura did she take time to love the mist. Here, she claims it back, and with vigor. Utopia is obsessed with the thrill of finding these feelings again.
She comes to this world with a newfound maturity, of course. Björk has not forgotten that pain, and though her wounds have healed, they have still scarred. “Losss” and “Sue Me” are the saddest she gets on Utopia, and sonically, they could fit easily on Vulnicura. Arca — who has co-produced nearly all of these tracks — is clearly present here, using his trademark industrial blasts and booms to evoke feeling. These songs sound similar to his sophomore album, Mutant, a primal scream of a work. Björk’s softer voice cushions the effect though. There’s anger on these tracks, and loss, certainly, but Björk tries to push into happier territory, using delicate harps and flute choirs to frame Arca’s Id run wild. The conflicts that unfold here, this tension between her past pain and her more current optimism, makes these two of the most fascinating tracks on Utopia, especially sonically.
Because of the scars from her past, Björk is, in turn, both more cautious and more loving. There is just no time to not fall in love with the mist, to not throw herself entirely into these flirtatious games — because they might be gone in a moment, and she knows what it’s like to be without these small joys. She knows what it’s like to walk the street and think of nothing but her own hurt, retreating into herself but wanting to be free. On “Stonemilker,” the opener to Vulincura, she wonders, “And if one feels closed / How does one stay open?” On Utopia, she answers this question, forcing herself out into the world again. Her first single, “The Gate,” offers the most direct response: “My healed chest wound / Transformed into a gate / Where I receive love from / Where I give love from.” Her wound has now become her weapon, and though she has moved past it in so many ways, she keeps it around as a reminder for the future.
This means looking outwardly, too, which she does aptly. She sees her own breakup reflected in broader societal issues, and, as a mother of two, she uses this as an opportunity for teaching. This is her chance to do what she can to change the tide. The track “Tabula Rasa” (a Latin phrase meaning “blank slate”) offers such a lesson to her children. Björk knows she can’t save them from the world, acknowledging that they’ll “have to deal with shit soon enough,” but she can help them, and so she warns against the fuckups of fathers, the pointlessness of following anyone’s footsteps but your own.
For Björk, that nonconformity has implications that extend beyond her own personal life and the lives of her children. Utopia, subtly but importantly, is also a protest album for women as a collective, and she sees the struggle against assimilation as inherently tied to the struggle of women trying to carve their own way against the barrage of men who abuse their power and privilege. In a recent Facebook post, the often otherworldly musician gave her own personal narrative in light of the wave of women telling their stories of injustice by men in power. She wrote that after a troublesome relationship with a Danish director, “i became aware of that it is a universal thing that a director can touch and harass his actresses at will and the institution of film allows it.” With Utopia, she attempts to reclaim that identity; one which she often subverted, as she embraced a genderless aesthetic at least partially to protect herself. She turns this around, personifying music as clearly female on “Saint,” calling songwriting her matriarchal savior, one who “has entered me thousandfold often.” In the more aggressive “Sue Me,” she sings blatantly about the lawsuit her husband filed against her, seeing it as a continuation of disrespect for women: “He took it from his father / Who took it from his father / Who took it from his fathers.” This is laid bare over enormous, angry production, with bass that fills the room and demands attention. It’s classic, peak Arca, who is perfectly suited for such a rebellious sound. The producer has made a career of responding to traditional masculinity with grotesque, powerful Fuck-Yous — two foot heels and an unapologetic queerness.
This is a lot for a single album to tackle: renewed optimism, minuscule appreciations, continued loss, female empowerment. Björk has always aimed for the grand, and she goes for it here, and often does it well. But the problem with a non-narrative album which has so many competing ideas is that it can become overwhelming, even confusing, and Utopia certainly has moments when it’s not entirely sure where it’s stretching. Sonically heavier tracks like “Claimstaker” can feel at odds with the prior wispiness of “Arisen My Senses” and “Utopia,” and there lacks a story or a transition to bring it together in the same way that Vulnicura manages. Of course, Björk doesn’t really care about simplicity or clarity in her music, and there’s a certain joy as a fan in trying to decode the complexity. This album is as fleeting as the artist who made it. It confounds and frustrates. And still, it calls the listener back, if only to try to figure out the puzzle, destined to be unsuccessful.
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