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In 2011 the British cultural critic Simon Reynolds asked, “Is Björk the last great pop innovator?” Reynolds decided that she is, even as he weirdly stated: “I confess that I’d half-forgotten how interesting she was as an artist – and just how long she’d stayed interesting.”
Today Björk belongs to the same pantheon of auteurs as David Bowie, Prince and Kate Bush – sonically, aesthetically and technologically. The Icelander doesn’t so much as ‘reinvent’ herself as expand – her back catalog both poly-genre and metatextural. Leaving the cult alt-rock group The Sugarcubes, Björk would be one of the first pop acts to embrace electronic dance music on 1993’s Debut. But, in interviews, she pointedly lauded black American pioneers like Larry Heard and Derrick May over the UK’s acid housers. The Goddess of Art-Pop, Björk has influenced everyone from Radiohead to Lorde to Kelela – plus the occasional outré Eurovision entrant. She also challenged a music industry traditionally pivoting on the US/UK axis.
Björk’s ninth album (excluding a project as a child prodigy!), Utopia is sublimely philosophical. In 2015 the enigmatic star unveiled the brutally bare Vulnicura, chronicling her split from American artist Matthew Barney – with whom she has a teen daughter. (Some 14 years before, Björk channelled the couple’s passion into the sumptuously glitchy Vespertine.) She was awakened by her rage. Superficially, Utopia is about the thrill of finding love again – Björk playfully describing it as her “Tinder album”. But Utopia is so much more. In conceptualising new beginnings, Björk writes about humanity, idealism and optimism. Amid the Trump era, this carries a political subtext: Björk, a sometime punk, is espousing DIY change.
Björk co-wrote the incongruous ‘Bedtime Story’ for Madonna’s 1994 R&B foray, Bedtime Stories. Like Madonna, she’s often perceived as a canny curator – liaising with cutting-edge producers. After all, Björk reached out to Timbaland for 2007’s Volta – her highest-charting album Stateside, the curiosity so immense. But, when promoting Vulnicura, Björk protested that she isn’t widely recognised for her studio prowess because of sexist assumptions. Others work WITH her, she clarified, not FOR. Björk collaborated with Alejandro “Arca” Ghersi – the buzz Venezuelan IDM DJ/producer previously credited on Kanye West’s Yeezus – in this capacity on Vulnicura. Unusually, for Utopia, Björk allowed him greater input – signalling her trust. She knows that achieving autonomy shouldn’t mean disconnection.
Utopia is pastoral electro. Björk has long explored the dichotomy between nature and civilisation, just as 1997’s Homogenic was inspired by Iceland’s surrounds. Björk used a topographical allegory, too, for Vulnicura‘s emotional apex, ‘Black Lake’. She sets Utopia in a matriarchal island paradise. Birdsong is audible throughout the album. And there is yet more arcadian folkiness. If Vulnicura was heavy on string arrangements, then Utopia is about the flute. Björk, who studied the instrument in childhood, has assembled an all-female woodwind ensemble.
While ever intricate, Utopia waves between minimalism and maximalism; the celestial and discordant. Opening the LP is the aerial hymn ‘Arisen My Senses’, with harp, synths and Björk’s layered vocals. In ‘The Gate’, the fragile lead single, Björk transcends Vulnicura‘s heartache, singing, “My healed chest wound/Transformed into a gate.” Ironically, the 10-minute epic ‘Body Memory’ reveals a disembodied choir, and a wraith of a groove, as Björk realises her thread-like resilience.
However, Björk hasn’t wholly let go of that “personal drama”. Utopia is interrupted by a defiant trilogy of songs, starting with ‘Losss’ – less electro-acoustica than hushed techno (here, the Texan Rabit contributing production). In the quasi-hip-hop ‘Sue Me’, Björk expresses latent anger at Barney. And she advocates erasing the patriarchy for her offspring (“break the chains”) in ‘Tabula Rasa’ – hyper freak-folk with its flutes.
Alas, missing from Utopia are the melodic tunes that defined Björk’s early career (remember ‘Human Behaviour’?). Only ‘Blissing Me’ is an obvious single – being a sensual beat ballad in which Björk falls for another “music nerd”. Nevertheless, even as the most avant of avant-pop LPs, Utopia is surprisingly on-trend. Undoubtedly, Björk has flipped the recent bizarre predilection for flute loops in hip-hop (and, in fact, ‘Courtship’ is kinda flute n’ B.) So, yes, Mr Reynolds, Björk is an innovator – but she’s not the last. Indeed, for Björk, Utopia extols progression – as she closes with the feminist manifesto ‘Future Forever’.
‘Utopia’ is out now. Listen here.