Björk – Utopia [Album Review]

Björk is an Icelandic singer/songwriter (among other job titles) who has been making her own unique brand of music for years. I first remember discovering her back in the early nineties with the song and music video for Human Behaviour.” I thought, at the time, that it was groundbreaking and surreal. The song itself was amazing (which still holds up today, by the way), and the video with a young, pixie-like Björk and tripped-out imagery of stuffed animals attacking people was crazy, creative, and inspiring.

Over the years, she has seen mainstream success with some of her catchier music in the nineties, but has largely focused on creating avant-garde, radio-unfriendly electronic music since. Her latest release, ‘Utopia‘ expands largely on this style while also incorporating atmospheric elements and classical music influences. This record is clearly not interested in being cool or hip alongside the current pop idols; not a single song on here is fit for regular pop radio; and nothing on this album is likely going to be heard in the club. In stark contrast to earlier hits such as “Big Time Sensuality which can be heard playing in clothing stores in the mall, this music is a more intimate and personal listening experience that will not be easily-accessible for your average, casual music fan. This creative collection of songs is ‘art’ in the truest sense of the word.

The music on ‘Utopia’ is anything but catchy and a recognizable hook is scarcely found here. That’s not a bad thing though. In place of hooks and catchiness are lush, atmospheric soundscapes that transport its listener to a surreal, other-worldly dimension, or “utopia.” As opposed to what most of us consider a basic song format in modern music with a verse, chorus, verse, chorus pattern that follows along to a specific rhythm and melody, these songs seem to float along sonically without any need to feel contained by the restrictions of any structure. This type of musical freedom plays well into helping create the heavenly, utopian mood of the album.

Arisen My Senses” is the cinematic opener of the album. It uses a Prince-esque main synth riff and makes for a beautifully epic beginning to a journey toward the entrance of the world that is about to present itself during this album’s over one-hour runtime.

Blissing Me is a moody, melancholy trip down the memory lane of a past love. The lyrics are thoughtful and whimsical as Björk describes texting and sharing MP3s with a fellow “music nerd.” Vocally, her voice here is wispy and soothing while singing lyrics more in the style of a slam poetry recital over a musical backdrop than something you could, for instance, dance to. Much of the album’s vocals follow a similar format. It’s as if each song is its own piece of poetry utilizing instrumentation and sound effects to enhance the feeling that the words convey. There is no driving backbeat to the music and rarely do the lyrics ever rhyme. The songs can be more closely compared to pieces of modern art than to traditional pop music.

bjork_gate_video_1000-920x584The Gate” continues the trip into the melancholy and has Björk belting out some of her best vocals of the record. She conveys true emotion in her pained delivery of the lines, “I care for you. Care for you.” This track is easily one of the highest points of the record.

The song, “Utopia” takes the listener on an audible journey directly into paradise with an assortment of ambient sound effects to create a vibrant, imaginative atmosphere. “Body Memory” explores the realm of eroticism. It’s an enjoyable listen although perhaps longer than it needs to be before wearing out its welcome.

Features Creatures” especially embodies the aforementioned musical slam poetry style.  The poem describes how feelings can be ignited about a total stranger who possesses certain similar qualities to that of a loved one. The words lend themselves nicely to this format. There’s something oddly enjoyable about the way Björk rolls her R’s in words like “literally” here.

Another strong point on the album is “Losss.” On this track, Björk seems to find the perfect balance between electronic and classical styles. The industrial-tinged, gritty synth beats alongside the dreamy flute melodies and strings compliment each other perfectly. It’s like “Stairway to Heaven” meets Nine Inch Nails.

Sue Me” shifts the mood with a more abrasive, electronic sound. It features a pounding, bass-heavy synth beat and sampling, somewhat reminiscent of Purity Ring, to propel the song while accompanied by more flute melodies to accent.

Tabula Rasa” deals with encouraging children not to repeat the mistakes of their parents but to start with a clean slate in life and develop through personal experiences instead. The message is delivered boldly with lines like, “Break the chain of the fuck-ups of the fathers.” Sonically, it continues down a dreamlike path with strings and echoing vocals.

Paradisia” is a short, simple instrumental track of flute melodies and sound effects. I can best describe this song as reminiscent of the soundtrack that plays when entering a town in any old-school RPG video game such as Final Fantasy. I have a feeling that’s not what was intended here, but for my personal interpretation, it works. The citizens in those scenes always appear so innocent and carefree. They feel safe under the shelter of their beautiful city, completely unaware that impending doom is out there. For them, this is paradise.

In the song “Saint,” the singer tells the story of a compassionate woman who helps those in need. This slow-paced, ethereal piece uses layered, echoing vocal tracks over the sounds of birds chirping and a string section that build into a cinematic climax during the choruses. The lyrics are thoughtful and powerful with lines like, “I dreamt she cared for my dying grandfather. Lying naked face down on his bed.” It’s one of the stronger tracks of the album before it ends with “Future Forever” – a gentle, dreamlike stroll to close out this artistic journey of self-expression.

Overall, this is a superb album. It will definitely not appeal to everyone, however, and those who are willing to try and experience it should do so with an extremely open mind. Don’t expect this to sound like anything else on the radio or even like anything else Björk has done in the past. Sure, the influences of her past works are here, but this record is something truly unique and special by comparison. What Björk does is manage to successfully push the limits of avant-garde music while still retaining its listenability by not going full Yoko Ono. Highly recommend.

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