In the two and a half decades since Björk released her debut album, she’s been called everything from a pretentious bore to a shapeshifting genius. While she’s certainly not to everyone’s taste, there can be no denying her individuality. Bold and forward-thinking with an incredibly distinctive voice and style, she has been consistently ahead of the game by bringing sounds from more experimental areas into the world of pop on a host of widely acclaimed releases. There really is no other artist out there quite like her.
On her ninth studio album ‘Utopia’, Björk continues to move in new directions. Playfully billed as her “Tinder album“, it follows on thematically from her stark, string-laden 2015 “heartbreak” album ‘Vulnicura’. However, the strings heard on her last release have been exchanged for harp, wind instruments (most notably an all-female 12-piece Icelandic flute orchestra) and also birdsong, giving ‘Utopia’ an altogether airier feel than its predecessor. One thing retained from her 2015 album though are the glitchy beats of Venezuelan electronic artist Arca, who returns as co-producer alongside Björk.
On ‘Vulnicura’ the combination of strings and electronic beats worked fairly well together, resulting in what sounds like Arca being given more freedom this time around. But on ‘Utopia’ the relationship between the organic and electronic instrumentation is much more distant, leaving large parts of the album feeling empty and lacking any real emotion. Clocking in at over 70-minutes there’s a lot to digest (as with most Björk albums), but the focus on soundscapes over melody and conventional song structures makes this a difficult album to connect with
Even Björk’s vocals, which feature quite highly in the mix, don’t have anywhere near the impact we’ve come to expect. It can leave the listener feeling more like a distant spectator than an active participant, with large parts of the album floating along aimlessly. ‘The Gate’ is just one example of this, which despite its mildly interesting middle section has to be among Bjork’s poorest singles. There’s also tracks such as the flute-led pieces ‘Utopia’ and ‘Body Memory’ (with its strange growl-like sample), as well as the eerie and dull ‘Features Creatures’. All four tracks follow on from one another, taking up a sizeable chunk of the album (26-minutes in total).
Despite its aimless and distant feel, there are at least few moments of beauty to take away. There’s promising opener ‘Arisen My Senses’, with its lush harp working superbly alongside a cascading beat. ‘Blissing Me’ also continues its positive start, with nice interplay between harp and electronic beats over Björk’s intimate sing-speak vocals about “two music nerds… sending each other MP3s“. Another highlight is ‘Loss’, which features harp and flutes alongside a Rabit-produced beat that grows increasingly harsher as it progresses. This handful of positives however aren’t quite enough to prevent ‘Utopia’ from being among the weakest records Björk has produced.
‘Utopia’ was released on 24th November via One Little Indian Records