London Student

Bjork – Utopia: “Good strangeness”

This album is a positive, self-aware, and delicate revival for Bjork, intermixing humour with bolshie string accompaniments that come shoulder to shoulder with sweet lyrics and fairy-like flutes and harp.  

Opener ‘Arisen My Senses’ has a playful, soft, tropical beat enhanced by picks of the harp which collide with a tinny clockwork-soldier rhythm, which shrieks back into the mellifluous notes sung by Björk. The singer samples Arca’s ‘Little Now a Lot’, bringing in the haunted quality of the Venezuelan producer’s early sound, who made significant contributions to Björk’s ninth studio album Vulnicura and whose input shapes Utopia from the very start.  The Bjork/Arca collaboration frees her enchanted lilting vocals by seeming to resolve them in the rough rebuttals of strings and dissonant synth.

Next, the simplicity of ‘Blissing Me’ charms the listener with its love story that takes place between “two music nerds” who fall in love to a song. Her sustained notes as she sings “if you care for me” and melisma at “care for you”, and the back and forth lyrics intertwining with little flute trills, impart a hopeful tone that works to emphasise the potential for an easy sort of love. In fact, Björk has such an affinity with flute music that she recently announced a follow-up release of a live Utopia with emphasis on the flute songs she left behind to carry through more of the air sounds that informed this work.

In line with the album’s experimental nature, Björk samples birds and growling beasts in ‘Body Memory’, which pop-up alarmingly within the song. It seems like a fascinating reference to the way that trauma resurfaces at unexpected moments in a guttural and primitive way, choosing no appropriate moment. The 10-minute centrepiece of this album is so full with choral energy from Iceland’s all-woman Hamrahlid Choir that this is a victorious song that speaks as much about the body memory of finding the innate rhythm within your skin to dance and keep moving, on and up.

One of the songs on the album that didn’t flow as well with the rest of the songs was ‘Losss’ [sic]. This song sounds amazing played at a loud volume to accentuate the scattergun bass and tremble in Björk’s voice. She’s previously mentioned that this song was a little nod to her previous album Vulnicura and the sadder feel to this piece does evoke that. A highlight moment in this song is when the lyrics “Tied ribbons on my ankles for you/Drew orchids on my thighs for you” are placed within a landscape of natural layers of sound. This moment shows the important influence of sound mixer Mandy Parnell, who has also been credited for working with artists like Aphex Twin. Throughout this album her mastering helps to provide a rich sound experience by emphasising drums, strings, sound effects and keyboard over Björk’s haunting vocal in a way that feels subtle and delicate.

From the breakbeat feel of ‘Courtship’ through to the tropical rainforest atmosphere of ‘Saint’, some have described Utopia as more of a soundtrack than a solid album. Certainly, ‘Future Forever’ has conceptual similarities to what one might hear when listening to Pan’s Labyrinth, and Utopia’s epic choir sections feel like the little babies of Tavener’s The Lamb. This richness and dreaminess of sound is like a portal to an island that evades the listener in its many nooks and crannies. Some would call it frustrating but I think the threads of music that take us only so far are tempting and exciting rather than overly complicated.

I feared that this album might lose some of its way in a bid for peak experimental flair but Björk has created something universal in its sonic movement. Her broad cherry-picking of breathy sounds that should have made for a cacophony simply pleasantly tease at one’s expectations. It reminds me of what writer Alice Fulton calls the “good strangeness of poetry” – by striving for the uncanny, Bjork wants to take us far away from home, calling us into the enchanted forest and asking us to listen to the phantasmagorical at large.

8/10

 

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