Björk’s new Album 'Utopia' is best approached not as a set of songs but as a soundscape. Her music here is, as it has often been for the past ten years or so, textural rather than song based. On these grounds, 'Utopia' is more of a success than, say, 'Biophilia', as it is much more sonically interesting. The music here is bright, colourful and lucid, and at its best it adds up to a potent sensory experience - as in opening track 'Arisen My Senses', which washes over the listener like a blast of sunshine, or the graceful rising and falling of the flutes on 'Saint'. The album is full of intriguing sounds; birdsong, growling, digital bleeps and bloops, abrasive beats and an eclectic range of woodwind instruments to name just a few. In fact, lots of the songs on 'Utopia' contain wonderful moments. The problem, however, is that they often fail to coalesce into anything more than that.
2015‘s 'Vulnicura' was at times also texture focused and abstract, but is was carried by its focus and emotion. 'Utopia' lacks the emotional intensity of that album and feels in
comparison a little directionless. Whereas 'Vulnicura' detailed the falling apart of Björk’s thirteen-year relationship with Matthew Barney, this album charts the peace she has now found through meeting new people and through self-discovery. Important emotions as well of course, but ones that are not quite as visceral. This leaves the album feeling slightly empty, lacking an emotional core to pull all of its disparate ideas together.
Some of the best moments still come out of Björk’s heartbreak. 'Losss' is a bleak, intense rumination on the subject of its title that toes a fine line between beauty and ugliness.
“Loss of love, we all have suffered” she sings over an enchanting arrangement of flutesand harps that drift uneasily over harsh, glitchy beats. The track collapses as it goes along, mirroring the collapse of a relationship, and is eventually completely consumed by an apocalyptical assault of industrial noise as the dream turns into a nightmare. Lead single 'The Gate' meanwhile is about recovering from loss and the difficult process of opening yourself up to new relationships in the aftermath of a heartbreak. It, like many of Björk’s best songs, is disarmingly intimate. Björk sounds vulnerable and the song’s arrangement, whilst very atmospheric, is skeletal, giving her little to hide behind as she bares her soul.
However whilst there is definitely some powerful material on 'Utopia', a lot of the album feels somewhat empty. For all the concern about Arca’s involvement, his production is one of the best things about the record. His glitchy percussion and synth work make for a really interesting contrast with the lush flutes and are a large part of the reason why 'Utopia' is so sonically intriguing. The issue comes more from Björk herself. Whilst her voice sounds as gorgeous and expressive as ever she doesn’t do a whole lot with it. The songs are for the most part melodic and there is sometimes a strange disjuncture between her vocals and the music behind them, almost as if they came from separate songs.
As with a lot of Björk’s newer material, the problem is not that the music is too abstract but that it lacks in melody or structure. 2004‘s 'Medúlla' is still far stranger than anything she has done since (the album is almost completely a cappella) but it remains a great record because it has strong songwriting. 'Utopia', however, contains music that is often evocative and compelling, but is also often lacking in purpose and in some cases just sounds messy. Songs like 'Sue Me' have way too many things going with little tying them together, and many of the more stripped back songs fail to make much of an impression in the first place.
So whilst 'Utopia' is certainly very interesting sonically it can also be obtuse and unfocused. Its hefty running time does not help with this and can make it difficult to listen to in one sitting. It is adventurous and daring, as can be expected from Björk, and contains some sublime moments, but is as a whole a little self-indulgent. An easy album to admire but a difficult one to connect with.