I believe that Björk’s ninth adult solo album Utopia is the execution of a singular vision, and I am happy for her achievement. I admire her finished product from a remove, like a perfect-looking couple whose bed I will never share or a glorious penthouse spread across the pages of Architectural Digest, whose doors I will never enter. There are many terrible things in this world and Björk certainly is not one of them.
But, oh, how she vexes me. If life is a series of disappointments, mine has been punctuated by the following string of events since 2004's Medúlla: I wait years for a new Björk album, she releases it, it does very little for me, I think, “God, now I have to wait years before I have the chance to fall in love with new Björk music, as I once did,” I wait those years, I’m disappointed again, etc. And yet I hold out hope, and am reintroduced to the lesson life keeps trying to teach me but that never seems to stick: Optimism has a funny way of keeping you down.
There’s a fine line between hope and delusion. I can clearly recognize that the Björk of today is not the Björk I fell in love with in the early ‘90s. Her music has gone from sonically ready-to-wear future-pop to listening music that’s more akin to haute couture. I don it once, it goes back on the shelf, I sit and wait. Her increasingly fussy output, often as elaborately devised and referred to by Björk with the same kind of breathless enthusiasm with which she’s always discussed her work, is often admirable, but in my experience, rarely pleasurable.
As is often in the case with past love, I find it hard to be entirely fair here. I have less patience for Björk’s indulgences than those of others. I’m obsessed with abstract music at the moment. My favorite album of the year is virtually formless, an ambient album called Avifaunal by a duo from the UK called Pausal. That album hits me like a surprise every time I listen to it; I’ve still yet to make out exactly what I’m hearing. I do think I hold Björk’s past greatness against her—when someone creates previously inconceivable sounds that yet convey the kind of simple sense of pop music, it’s hard not to get addicted to that and want it to never stop. But it has stopped.
Björk’s work, too, is increasingly conversant with her past. If her last album, 2015's Vulnicura, evoked the strings-and-distortion brutality of 1997's Homogenic, the warmth and intricacy of her latest, Utopia, is overall more in line with 2001's Vespertine. And just as Vespertine was crafted as a conscious response to its predecessor, so is Utopia, which picks up the pieces of Vulnicura’s devastation, sometimes overtly. “My healed chest wound / Transformed into a gate / Where I receive love from / Where I give love from,” she sings in Utopia’s baffling first single, “The Gate,” making direct reference to the split-chest imagery she rocked on the cover of Vulnicura, an album about the end of Björk’s 13-year relationship with artist Matthew Barney, as well as the video for that album’s 10-minute centerpiece “Black Lake.”
Utopia is peppered with references to Björk’s music. Her lyrics reference past work (there’s some “Quicksand” in “Sue Me,” a line in “Future Forever” that almost echoes one in “All Is Full of Love,” the “self-sufficiency” in “Army of Me” integrated in “The Gate”) and some of the beats seem to, as well—the shrapnel-filled crash of the bass in “Losss” sounds designed to recall “5 Years.” Whereas during Björk’s fruitful pop period that spanned the release of her first three albums, she seemed engaged with the bigger pop landscape, riffing on it while often bettering it, lately it seems like Björk is most engaged with Björk, and listening to her last two albums is like listening to her talk to herself about herself. This is made further frustrating because Björk’s taste in Björk runs on the esoteric side: Dazed reported in September that the producer Arca (Alejandro Ghersi), with whom Björk collaborated for the bulk of Vulnicura and Utopia, “encouraged her to pursue a direction she’d hinted at on obscure cuts like “Batabid” (a synth track from her Vespertine era) and “Ambergris March” (from the Drawing Restraint 9 soundtrack).”
Really, it all comes down to melody for me, and Björk’s have been increasingly less inviting over the last 13 or so years. Forget hooks; many of Utopia’s songs have no choruses to speak of. The ones that do exist would hardly be mistaken for earworms. So many of the tunes Björk sing-songs here are the same kind of unresolved, deflating memories that repeat every four or eight bars until they cease with their songs, defeated.
I get the sense that Björk is challenging her listeners to think beyond our expectations of her and music in general; her songs are ecosystems and the melody coming out of her mouth is just one element of incredibly complex sonic schemes, which run the gamut here from incorporating a 12-woman flute crew, snippy little forest rumblings, a synthetic panther growl, harps, swirling voices, ruthless beats, and birdsong. Björk aligns herself with the animals she samples, looping a series of notes repeatedly, creating her own verbal calls. This approach is simultaneously humble and vainglorious, suggesting her pop-star persona is no longer the most important thing about her music but also that her indulgences are interesting in themselves because they are of her. The overall collage can be enthralling—the album flutters on wings whose each infinitesimal motion has been programmed, and there’s a string of three nearly hummable tracks in the middle (“Courtship,” “Losss,” “Sue Me”) whose sharp contrasts of melodic unruliness and distorted percussion almost make you feel like the old Björk is back. But without proper tuuuuuunes, Utopia works more like a design project than a utilitarian album to cherish for years to come, to mark your life at this time, as the music you love often does. Björk adorns her tracks handsomely, but ultimately, I can’t see the tree for the ornaments.
Lyrically, Utopia follows the same highly personal thread of Vulnicura—of all the surprising turns Björk’s career could have taken, none is quite as conventional as this immersion in the confessional. This can be invigorating—her resolution to shield her daughter Isadora from toxic masculinity stemming from “sins of the fathers” in “Sue Me” deftly weaves feminism into her work more overtly than ever without indication that she’s just virtue-signaling. She’s also capable of making the most human processes sound like something she’s the first person to experience: “My tear duct clogged / My left eye broken / Medicate with warm compress / Extract hardened tears,” is how “Sue Me” reflects the emotional callousing that litigating familial matters in court can cause (the song is clearly about the custody lawsuit Barney filed against Björk in 2015).
If she’s not making the alien sound accessible anymore in her music, at least she’s making the accessible sound alien. Sometimes. She’s referred to Utopia as her “Tinder album” (and then explained in a later interview that she’s actually too famous to be on Tinder), but repeatedly she comes off as someone who just started dating and wants you to know all about what it’s like, even if you’ve been there for years and the marvels of modern communication unfurling before Björk’s eyes are, in fact, old news to you. She details a chain of app rejection on “Courtship” in a manner that would have only seemed novel if she were beaming this to the past, before dating apps were invented. “He turned me down, I then downturned another / Who then downturned her,” she sings, and she may as well be reciting a Cuisinart’s instruction booklet. “Isn’t it odd? / Isn’t it peculiar / These statistics of my mind / Shuffling your features / Assembling a man / Googling love?” she sings on the gothic, beatless “Creatures Features.” Not really! Everyone does it these days! She’s occasionally full-on trite, even, like at the end of her song about texting- and file-sharing-based infatuation, “Blissing Me,” when she wonders aloud, “Did I just fall in love with love?” thereby invoking a cultural trope. “Will we stop seeing what unites us / But only what differs?” she wonders on “Courtship.” Zzzz. “Loss of love, we all have suffered / How we make up for it defines who we, who we are,” she declares on “Losss.” Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.
One moment Utopia feels obsessively constructed, the next: half-baked. It’s an album of beauty that sketches love and music as two sides of the same coin and advocates of the creation of one’s own paradise... with an update on Björk’s divorce proceedings and Matthew Barney’s alleged infidelity sandwiched in via a multi-song suite. She’s either suggesting that utopia is relative or just sorely lacking the levelheadedness to edit her own shit these days.
Utopia is mesmerizing and infuriating, a transmission from a cloistered land from someone who used to visit ours but now demands that we come to her. Too rarely, in my experience, is the trip worth it anymore.
And yet, like a fool who’s long been abandoned, I hold out hope for Björk’s return.