For me, Björk albums are always multi-leveled affairs. On one level, you usually get a great album; the songs are all great and it’s an enjoyable experience listening to the album because it feels so fresh and unique. On another level, the music on these albums tends to be boundary pushing on a regular basis. There’s always some new musical flavor to be enamored with. And finally, there’s always the distinctly flamboyant “character” (not a narrative character, but a thematic one) that Björk displays on her album and continues to expand upon in all her live performances.
With Björk’s new album, “Utopia,” I can say that she has nailed all but one of these categories, but the explanation for this miss is that she hasn’t gone on tour yet. On “Utopia,” Björk displays some of her most trailblazing music yet. And based on the album artwork, alien is not an inaccurate word to describe this new release.
I think that the alien imagery is odd, funny looking and unique in the best way possible. Everything about the artwork associated with this album has been maximally weird–that is, it is memorable. Even better than just being memorable, the artwork goes hand in hand with the music on display here.
Let’s go to “The Gate” into this album. There’s a lot to say about this. I think this track represents the mood of the album well, but not necessarily the rest of the album as a whole. What I mean by this is that this song’s lyrics, musicality and performance from Björk are great at representing the general musical ideas that are represented throughout the album, but that doesn’t mean that this song sounds like the others on this album.
This is because this song is sparse. It is six minutes long, and the vast majority is just Björk’s vocals and then some flutes. And even these vocals are just a repeating chorus of the phrase “I care for you / if you care for me.” And I love it.
The instruments on this album are great. I love the keyboard flourishes, flutes and bass reverberations sprinkled throughout this track. The music video is also marvelously weird. But for a song that is six minutes of mainly Björk’s vocals, I am floored by how quickly this track goes by without ever dragging on. I also especially love the way she stretches the word “care” out into two syllables. It’s absolutely fantastic.
The highest praise I can bestow upon this track is that it reminds me of the now 20-year- old track by Björk “All is Full of Love,” off of her album “Homogenic.” And this comparison extends to the albums as a whole.”Homogenic” was, before “Utopia,” the album most influenced by the Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) scene (this is no coincidence either, considering that the main producer on this album is the IDM artist Arca).
Tracks like the nine-minute “Body Memory,” “Courtship” or “Losss” all feature drum sequences that would not feel out of place on a Venetian Snares or Aphex Twin album. If Aphex Twin’s “Richard D. James” album was an orchestra with IDM beat-sequences, then “Utopia” is an IDM album with Björk’s voice and someflute.
The animal noises are also worth mentioning. This review wouldn’t be complete without it. There are cougar growls, cat purrs and a plethora of bird chirps scattered throughout this album. I would be remiss to say that these sounds didn’t stick out. Especially when some of these animal noises are sped up to a chipmunk-in- toned pitch. Out of all of the elements on this album, this is the one I feel the most weirded out by. For example, on the track “Arisen My Senses,” there’s this very grand, wholly immense musical progression–a progression that gets bumped out of whack by the repetition of all the bird chirps.
There are a ton of flute arrangements across this album and they are beautiful. Björk has always been a musician who has pushed boundaries by bringing instruments in conjunction with one another in ways that sound odd upon first listen. I’m talking here of the synths and strings of “Homogenic” and Björk’s voice itself on “Vul- nicura.” And in “Utopia’s” case, it’s these flute arrangements with the beat sequences. Albeit, it sounds pretty pretentious to be like, “Oh the flute is so beautiful on this album, I mean just listen to these flutes!” But at the same time, the flutes on this album are used in a wonderful way that really coheres with the musicality of the album as a whole.
And finally, I want to talk about the biggest strength of the album and its greatest fault. This album is great at being emotionally resonant. Björk described this album a while ago as her “Tinder album.” “Tinder” as in it is the album tracing her return to emotional and romantic availability after the breakup described on “Vulnicura.”
This might sound generic coming from someone who has been making return-to-dating-scene classics like “Possibly Maybe” her whole career, but this should only reinforce the claim that it is just that much more astounding that Björk was able to make this generic theme (for her and in general) sound so compelling and fresh on her ninth album, rounding out over 20 years of musical endeavors.
The album’s greatest fault is that it’s too long. Björk normally has her albums end at around 40 minutes; this album is 70 minutes long. And when a lot of these songs are five-plus minutes of very dense and odd material from a dense and odd musician, it can get a bit draining.
But this point is negligible, as I can already tell that I wouldn’t listen to this album all the way to the end each time I listen to it. Rather, it’s an album I’ll add to my collection and listen to bits and pieces of as time goes by. That is to say, it’s like every other Björk album out there: a fantastic collection of fantastic songs that are well worth adding to your collection.