Björk - Utopia
Nov 19, 2017 (updated Jul 11, 2018)
80
Utopia is the most challenging and adventurous album in Bjork’s discography. If you know where she’s been then you know that’s saying a lot. This album sounds like a synthesis of everything that Bjork has done up until now, but it also forges boldly ahead into the new. Bjork sings and sometimes simply speaks on personal and political topics, with the common thread being her effort to envision a “possible future,” one liberated from the painful mistakes of the past. The music she sings over can be beautifully pastoral (“Blissing Me,” “Saint”) or eerie and intense (“Body Memory,” “Loss”). It’s dense material, but as always Bjork’s voice illuminates the way, sounding as strong and radiant as it has in years. Unfortunately, only a few of the melodies she has given herself to sing likewise rise to the level of her classic work. This is something of a disappointment, though it is softened by the realization that Bjork’s songwriting is moving in a new direction that yields its own rewards. Her lyrics are by turns humorous, heart-wrenching, provocative and insightful, and the arrangements she has created with Arca - whether for harp, flute, or choir, to say nothing of their utterly intoxicating beats - are also among her best.

After a thrilling opening that includes the explosive "Arisen My Senses" and the enchanting "Blissing Me" - two love songs as moving as Bjork has written - the album shifts into a more challenging gear with "The Gate." That song, like "Utopia" and the epic "Body Memory," are the most audacious, but also the most successful, of Utopia's experiments. On the latter, Bjork contemplates life, death, love, and sex over a shape-shifting, choral-driven arrangement that is nothing short of mind-blowing. But after "Features Creatures," a torch song in the vein of "Possibly Maybe," the album moves into a second act where Bjork's focus seems to falter. In the long run from "Courtship" through "Claimstaker," songwriting takes a back seat to Bjork's lyrical unburdening; inwardly reflective and outwardly defiant, these songs almost comes across like a sermon or philosophical manifesto. In that respect, this portion of the album is reminiscent of 2011's Biophilia, and unfortunately it shares that album's proclivity for meandering vocal lines and indistinct arrangements. As a result, the songs begin to run together, differentiated only by the shifting tectonic beats beneath the similar sounding vocal and flute patterns. However, this journey is not without a reward, as Bjork saves two of the albums best and most straightforwardly beautiful tracks for last. "Saint" is a magisterial ballad in which Bjork's flute players bow out with a melody that is both sentimental and cinematic. And then there is "Future Forever," a gorgeously sung final statement that nods lyrically to "All is Full of Love" as it reprises that ballad's themes of hope and love.

Ultimately, Utopia is an album that requires you to meet it on its own uncompromising terms. Even longtime fans of Bjork will find this a demanding listen: Bjork has taken on a new form with each of her albums, but on Utopia it often feels as though we are watching the transformation in real time, witnessing as Bjork, now 52, takes inventory of herself, her relationships, and her world, all the while trying to imagine a way forward. It's not easy going, but with Utopia Bjork has offered us the chance to take the journey with her. Immerse yourself in it, and you will find it has the power to provoke, to delight, to embolden, and to heal. Every Bjork album transports us to a new world, and the "elsewhere" she invites us to explore on Utopia may be her most exquisitely rendered feat of imagination yet.

Highlights: "Arisen My Senses," "Blissing Me," "The Gate," "Utopia," "Body Memory," Losss," "Saint," "Future Forever"

[For fellow Bjork fans, I would currently place this in the second-tier of her albums, along with Debut and Medulla. I treasure those albums, and I believe I will treasure Utopia as well, but I also believe that all three of these albums have flaws that one must accept in order to understand and enjoy them. I don't think it's as consistently great as Homogenic, Post, Vespertine, or Vulnicura, though the highlights come close. At the same time it is much better than Volta or Biophilia. I know there are Bjork fans who prefer Bjork at her most experimental; if you consider Biophilia and/or Medulla among her best then you may well find Utopia among your favorites as well. It's quite hard for me to be objective about Bjork's music, but I've tried to give a balanced assessment of Utopia for all listeners. As a die-hard Bjork fan, I will admit that if the later-middle part of the album grows on me much at all, this could still be my AOTY, despite my criticisms.]

6 Comments
6y
Thank you for reading!
6y
Where did you listen it? omg plz
6y
Torrent, buddy - the album leaked over the weekend
6y
I couldn't be more excited for this album after listening to the singles. I think my soul might leave my body.
6y
"This album sounds like a synthesis of everything that Bjork has done up until now, but it also forges boldly ahead into the new"

sums it up perfectly!
2y
I thought medulla was her most challenging
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