Review: Björk’s Utopia

Since the beginning of her career, Björk has been a singular voice in music. Interested equally in the performing and technical aspects of her craft, her albums haven’t been listening experiences as much as they’ve been ornamental puzzle-boxes for listeners to solve. Sometimes, this has yielded great results. Homogenic, with its icy asceticism, is one of the best albums of all time while Volta, released 10 years later, was an unmitigated disaster (Björk herself has publicly distanced herself from the album). Twenty years after her highest point and 10 years after her lowest, Björk is, once again, at her idiosyncratic best.

The most welcome aspect of Utopia is the return of Venezuelan producer Arca. His work with Björk on her 2015 album Vulnicura produced some of the darkest songs she’d ever written and performed. Fortunately, the talent of this pairing can produce equally good music on the opposite end of the spectrum. Utopia’s sonic tapestry is lush with flutes, harps, and chorals that, when combined on tracks like the sublime “Blissing Me,” produce an effect of profound transcendence. That being said, it’s easy to identify some earlier strands of her music on the album. Drawing on the vocal arrangements of Medúlla and some of the more folksy instrumentations on Vespertine, the album is a reflection of her past work. In the process, Björk weaves the disparate elements of these albums together to produce something infinitely lighter and more graceful than either of those earlier works.

“Arisen My Senses,” the opening track of the album, is one of its best. Incorporating birdsong, among other things, the track gives an excellent sense of what is to come. Björk’s clarion voice soars over the production, dipping in and out of the instrumentation, daring the listener to get lost in the cacophony. It’s the aural equivalent of being smothered with a velvet blanket, claustrophobic but not in an entirely unpleasant way. More minimalist tracks like “The Gate” and “Features Creatures” aren’t as rewarding but can be pleasurable in their disparate elements. The real standout of Utopia is “Body Memory,” which was written as the follow-up to “Black Lake” from Vulnicura. If the latter represents Björk at her worst emotional moments, the former represents her at her best. Like “Arisen My Senses,” the track is a blend of disparate sounds (adding Stravinsky-like percussion for good measure) that are more than the sum of its parts. It’s 10 minutes of pure, unadulterated ecstasy.

I’m preaching to the choir. Björk is the ultimate in love-it-or-hate-it music and there isn’t really anything I can say that’ll convince you to listen to her music if you aren’t under her spell. If you like Björk, or even just Arca, you’ll love this album. Vulnicura was a major turning point in Björk’s career and it’s nice to see that her partnership with Arca continues to produce such strong results. Even if her next album doesn’t ascend to the same dizzying heights, we’ll always have this one, eminently warm moment in her music.