Following our retrospective review of the sublime Homogenic back in January, I dived straight into the rest of Björk’s catalogue. Unsurprisingly, I was hooked: 2017 quickly turned into my year of Björk, as Post and Homogenic practically became daily listens, and my adoration grew at a rapid rate. Utopia has been one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and to be totally truthful, I’ve had a difficult time with it.
This, her ninth studio album, is one of Björk’s most abstract so far. It is undeniably fascinating and often otherworldly: a sweeping expedition of complex love songs that reveal some of her most personal affairs. This is a whole new emotional terrain for Björk, and that is to be commended. Unfortunately for me, I struggle to find something substantial to hold on to. Utopia is heavy on concept, technical nuance, and detail, but very light on hooks, beats, and engaging melodies. I’m as big a fan of experimental music as anyone, yet I feel myself longing for songs whenever I listen. The world Björk has designed is an irrefutable wonder — I’m just not given a reason to explore it. The record is scattered with gorgeous moments that ultimately feel like a tease. The climax of “Saint”, for example, is stunning, but the song otherwise meanders. Utopia occasionally grips its claws in me, only to let go seconds later.
I’ve been patient with Utopia, hoping it would grow on me. Who knows, it still may happen. Unfortunately, I can’t see myself ever being invested enough to sit through its 70-minute playtime again. This is Björk’s longest work so far, and I believe it suffers from its length, particularly given the drowsy nature of the album’s sequencing. Listening to “The Gate” in isolation is a beautiful experience, but its impact is actually lessened on the record. The opening two tracks end up suppressing its force, and that’s a huge shame, because it’s still one of my favourite songs of the year. Utopia takes a while to hit its stride, and I find myself finally tuning in from “Body Memory” and beyond. Things feel more focused at the point of “Losss” and “Sue Me”, which is probably my favourite segment of the album, but I lose attention again shortly afterwards. This, regrettably, is a common occurrence. I’m glad other Björk fans are happy with her latest record — she remains an absolute treasure. I sincerely hope Utopia finds its way to my heart, though as of now, I feel some considerable distance between us.6 10
Favourite tracks // Losss
It’s strange to feel so little for an album as luscious and intricate as Utopia, but here we are. Björk’s latest outing, 70+ minutes of vivid electronic ambience, is in many respects a delight. Björk sounds great, the production is impressive, the imagery conjured distinct and powerful. The record sways and flows through electric cathedrals and psychedelic fantasy rainforests, and, er, googling stuff. The blend of flutes and harmonies and goodness knows what else culminate in a truly otherworldly sound, something utterly magisterial at its best.
For the most part, though, Utopia doesn’t operate at its best. There are large spells where the album simply doesn’t go anywhere, and although the general vibe is pleasant it’s not that pleasant. There are tantalising glimpses of something more pointed and powerful, razored spells in “Losss” and “Body Memory”, or peaks of tender euphoria in “Saints”, but they’re never permitted to break Utopia’s smooth, colourful surface. For all the vulnerability of Björk’s performance, the music surrounding her never lets you past its veneer. It’s hard to engage with something like that.
I would love to ‘get’ what Björk’s doing because it’s Björk and there’s all sorts of wonderful things at stake, but in this case I don’t think it’s there. And that’s fine. At this point in her career I haven’t got much business being upset or disappointed. On Utopia she’s tried something different and achieved it, but that listens more like a personal triumph for her than a rewarding experience for the listener.6 10
Favourite tracks // Losss
I’m so conflicted at the end of a week with Utopia. So many beautiful moments that have made for some of the best listening of the year can be found on Björk’s latest album. But for every minute I’ve enjoyed, I feel as though Utopia has taken another without much impact. Albums of this length begin to make me question whether the artist was simply indecisive about what should have made the cut, even for artists I’d normally defend to the hilt. At 71 minutes, Björk has released a mass of content that can sometimes be hard to approach. It’s no wonder then that I’ve often found myself starting around twenty minutes in at “Body Memory”, a track that sounds as though it was recorded in a cavernous monastery deep in a wild jungle, with growls and whistling winds swirling into a suspenseful atmosphere. “Features Creatures”, which follows it, manages to make for some of the eeriest and yet sweetest minutes of music I’ve heard, and I can’t see my adoration for it dwindling anytime soon. Björk’s vocals are tentative yet strong and stand stably on their own, as the disjointed, ghostly waves of sound float behind them. “Courtship” and “Losss” both pick up the pace a little, packing more of a punch with some grittier beats without losing any of the orchestral instrumentals.
Yet none of that praise can come without recognising that the four tracks that preceded it did little to nothing for me. While each track is beautiful in its own right, including the lead single “The Gate”, stacking them together totally loses me and makes for a very slow start to the album. That said, it never feels like Utopia fully gets off the ground, despite the moments in the mid-section that could be mistaken for the beginnings of a takeoff. “Future Forever” makes for a pensive, icy closer, but its force is lessened due to the tracks that precede it. The majority of Utopia‘s final third all feel like album closers. The net result is a record that, for me, doesn’t feel well structured, and begins to become a little bloated by the closing minutes. With so much heart and so much to love, I wish I could sing the praises of Utopia, but ultimately I’d need to ignore a healthy portion of the tracklist in order to do so.6 10
Favourite tracks // Features Creatures