You can’t go very long in a conversation about art pop before the name ‘Björk‘ springs up. Whilst progressive rock fans look more towards Kate Bush as the heralding maiden of the genre, it would be greatly amiss not to appreciate Björk‘s contributions to experimentation, artistic expression and technological innovation in pop music over the past few decades.
From the youthful energy in Debut‘s electropop to Vespertine’s sensual microbeats and from Medúlla‘s primal a capella to Vulnicura‘s emotionally-devastating string section, there is very little in Björk‘s solo discography that hasn’t experimented with a wide variety of styles, instrumentation and themes. Cue Utopia – Björk‘s latest album that explores the use of woodwind instrumentation and, quite unsurprisingly, circles the theme of paradise.
Those of you who know me personally know how much I anticipate each Björk release, so what did I think about it now that it’s released? More importantly, what did you think about it? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below the review, but without further ado – let’s talk Björk:
In the leadup to Utopia, Iceland’s queen of pop teased us with titbits about her 9th studio album: the utilization of woodwinds; another collaboration with Arca; an alikeness to the ‘Pagan Poetry’ B-side ‘Batabid’; and ultimately a more optimistic counterpart to the heartbreak-embodying Vulnicura. It all sounded too good to be true.
All things considered, it was.
Utopia’s 72 minute running time makes it Björk’s longest album, giving it more opportunity to falter – in reality, the album’s length is the biggest fault in itself. Most songs are simply twice as long as they ought to be. The beautiful and explosive splendour of ‘Body Memory’, ‘Arisen My Senses’ and ‘Losss’ exhaust themselves prematurely, leaving the latter halves of these songs feeling like a chore to listen to – a statement I would never expect to say about Björk’s music.
This is especially exhausting given that most songs barely progress anywhere; the boundaries between verse and chorus are not clearly defined and any new interesting developments quickly ricochet back to orbiting the homogeneity of the main vocal melody. Songs like ‘Family’ and ‘Atom Dance’ from Vulnicura manage to unfold new motifs and tones over their lengths with refreshing effect; whereas even the relatively short ‘Blissing Me’ in Utopia pussyfoots around Björk’s delicate vocals with no coherent structure or direction.
Another statement I wouldn’t find myself saying is that the best track in Utopia is ‘The Gate’. Upon release as the album’s first single, it felt unimpressive – but in the context of Utopia, its restraint gives the album and Björk herself room to breathe. The lone vocal melody accentuates the fragility of Björk’s tender lyrics, following the vulnerability of the ‘wound on her chest’ from Vulnicura, but still performs its role as the centrepiece of the song, with the sparse instrumentation augmenting the vocals rather than drowning them. ‘The Gate’ is the only long track whose length is warranted given its spacious delivery. The delicate closer, ‘Future Forever’, also flaunts Björk’s unwavering strength as a vocalist, where the playful delivery of “future forever” is reminiscent of the youthful Debut and Post, and is otherwise a tranquil, near enlightening track. However, this formula alone is not the key to Utopia’s success, as the desolate vocals in the eerie ‘Features Creatures’ is a bewildering choice given the romantic lyrics.
Most of the remaining songs aren’t quite as lucky, where the lead vocals are either drowned out by the instrumentation or, ironically, the backing vocals. This is apparent even from the album opener, ‘Arisen My Senses’, where the panned vocals fade in and out so frequently that they oversaturate themselves and lose their gravitas – it doesn’t help that the trap hi-hats in this song sound dreadful. Arca’s contributions are hit and miss; where the crushing and erratic beats in ‘Sue Me’ and ‘Body Memory’ can be distracting or oppressive, they work surprisingly well in ‘Courtship’ and ‘Losss’. The stuttering electronic arpeggios in ‘Claimstaker’ are by far the most engaging in Utopia; although they’re restrained alongside the strings and Björk’s vocals, they build anticipation and give ‘Claimstaker’ momentum – give it life. The rise and fall of vocals and strings in this track are fantastic, too. If anything, ‘Claimstaker’ is the only song that would benefit a longer runtime.
The lack of dynamic range of the woodwinds in ‘Utopia’, ‘Courtship’, ‘Sue Me’ and ‘Paradisia’ is catastrophic, further amplified by the previously mentioned lack of thematic variety. It’s a shame because their presence in ‘Tabula Rasa’, ‘Saint’ and ‘Losss’ is great when they draw out the melodic lines or lurk in the shadows, building on the song’s ambiance. It’s no wonder that the instrumentally-restrained tracks like ‘The Gate’, ‘Future Forever’ and ‘Claimstaker’ are the most enjoyable to listen to, and feel like the bright and airy utopia that Björk is trying to conjure.
Two things I can’t fault Utopia on are the excellent transitions between tracks and its ambiance. From the chirps and rustling canopies in ‘Utopia’ to the snarling wolverine in ‘Body Memory’, Björk brings a convincing natural atmosphere to the album. Though saying that, Björk’s declaration of Utopia being her ‘Tinder album’ isn’t very convincing – the sensuality is only explicit in ‘Blissing Me’ and ‘Courtship’, and other themes of femininity and nature point more towards a motherly nurturing in ‘Tabula Rosa’, ‘Utopia’ and ‘Saint’. There’s nothing here that reaches the immaculate sensuality in Vespertine.
It can be frustrating listening to Utopia; not because of its inaccessibility, but because of the realization that this album could have been so much more if it was so much less. There is no song in Utopia that is inherently bad, some are even fantastic, but the sum of all their flaws and, most fatally, their bloatedness ruins what could have potentially been one of Björk’s most captivating records.
Quite disappointingly, I can’t imagine that Utopia will end up highly on my Album of the Year list for 2017 – I hope that Björk‘s next venture is something a little more palatable. But what did you make of Utopia? What do you think of the album art? Is it artistic or experimental enough to be considered ‘prog’? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
You can purchase Utopia via Björk‘s official site
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