On her new album Utopia, it is assumed that Björk is smiling again. This is assured by all its promotional artillery that, playing the war of contrasts, points out that in the face of the darkness of Vulnicura (2015) — an album that was the product of his emotional break with Matthew Barney— this new record shows a Björk in love with life. Effectively on the cover of the album, in which the singer plays to reinvent her image for the umpteenth time in her career, a grotesque smile can be guessed. A plastic smile. Something similar happens to the music of the Icelandic artist too. An uncomfortable sense of artificiality that is complicated to associate with mundane sensations proving that her kingdom is not of this world.
While Utopia supposes the end of the duel (between the artist and Barney) it does not imply that we are in front of a collection of love songs in the line of ‘Violently Happy’ or ‘Venus as a Boy’. Although there are ballads like ‘Blissing Me’, the general tonic is not happiness or relationships absolutely, but we see Björk narrating from the search to the confrontation (‘Sue’ refers to the lawsuit filed by Barney for his daughter’s visits regime). Although this new work is more sedate than its predecessor and has plenty of winks to the way that technology has changed the ways we relate to each other —the exchanges of messages, the matches and unmatches of dating apps and even the search of names in Google— many of the songs revolve around motherhood and family structures, as in ‘Tabula Rasa’. It seems that the “utopia” of the title is more personal than global.
This is echoed in the video for the title track. Released on Friday, it depicts Björk in a utopia of her own making, alone save from a group of alien-like flautists and various wonderous insects. As the group plays, Björk awakens, a mask on her face and a painted on smile. She joins the flautists in performance as the camera slows pans out, revealing that her ‘Utopia’ is an island, floating in the sky, separated from any other world that might exist in this universe of her imagining.
Throughout Utopia, a certain neoclassical air dominates the work; at every moment torn between orchestral formalism and the most absolute modernity. It’s 72 minutes of Björk in her purest state, an artist who from the already distant Medúlla (2004) has managed to raise an unusual, unmistakable sound universe.
She has partnered again with Arca, who co-produced the entire album with the singer. Those who have never been fans of this union, will not find solace in Utopia, but the possibilities of the return of the ‘Björk pre-Arca’ seem very remote today. Although if anything has characterised the work of the Icelandic singer over the years it’s her tendency to burn artistic bridges and not look back.
The album is composed of both electronic music and orchestral passages both in service of her characteristic voice. Because of this, it fits into neither her early pop work nor her more recent avant-garde obsession. Here Björk inhabits an uncomfortable territory, inhospitable at times. A place that this particular Utopia will not help you out of.
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