Björk is one of our premier hyperrealists. Her music and videos induce a striking sense of otherworldliness through elaborate, unfamiliar biology and suspended or distended time. She stretches tempos like taffy and recasts familiar sounds like drum hits and human voices into unsettling new shapes through inventive approaches to melody and programming. Listening very intently to her music can feel like diving deeply into physics. You’re discovering new shapes and designs inside of the normal shapes and designs you’ve grown accustomed to since childhood, cataloguing all of the strange magic hiding in plain sight.
This week’s Utopia arrives two years after the Icelandic singer-producer’s downcast breakup album Vulnicura, and it offers a rejuvenating rush of desire to offset the previous project’s themes of drift and decay. Where on the last release Björk found herself longing for a searchable index of moments of lost intimacy on “History of Touches,” which paired futuristic science and human emotional frailty like Black Mirror’s memory replay daydream “The Entire History of You,” Utopia surveys the finer points of new romance, from profound to mundane. “Feature Creatures” inverts the concept of “History of Touches,” as glimpses of men whose hair and build match the singer’s new crush tide her over till their next meeting.
The idea presented on “Feature Creatures,” that the whole world is reverberating around the inner workings of one couple’s minds and hearts, informs the lyrics and the music of the rest of Utopia. That song’s ocean swell of cooing voices dramatizes the expectant eroticism lurking in the lyrics (“When I spot someone who is same height as you / And goes to same record stores / I literally think, ‘I am five minutes away from love’”) in the same way that the bombastic strings, wind instruments, and nature sounds of “Arisen My Senses” and “Utopia” seem to literally explode out of some fondly remembered kiss or caress. The mixing of human voices and found wilderness sounds with chirping, erratic electronics feels a bit … Disney, like animals and insects sidling up to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke during Mary Poppins’s “Jolly Holiday.”
Like Walt Disney’s vivid Technicolor landscapes, utopia is a beguiling idea because it imagines a state we’re to understand to be unreachable in this life. Utopia is a goalpost to strive toward, so as much as Björk’s new album is about finding satisfaction in our circumstances, it also pushes us toward the emotional and physical work that will help to get us to a better place. “Courtship” casts a new relationship as a deliberate act of rebuking the bad juju of rejection while warning of the stone-hearted sentries we stand to become if we give up on trying. (“The paralyzing juice of rejection / His veins full of lead / He’s left with loving what he lost / More than what he has.”) “Loss” views heartbreak as an opportunity to rebuild strength and character: “Loss of love, we all have suffered / How we make up for it defines who we are.”
Utopia is as much an act of drafting Björk’s specifications for a comforting future as detailing the nagging conditions of the present that make such fantasy necessary. Unconditional love and the power of music are introduced as expressways to wellness on “Saint” and “Future Forever,” but Björk’s worries as a mother and as an ex-wife fuel the engine carrying her there. “Sue Me” relies on Biblical allegory to send a chilling riposte to a custody suit her ex and former collaborator Matthew Barney sprung on her in the fallout from their 2013 separation: “Like the mother in Solomon’s tale / To spare our girl, I won’t let her get cut in half.” “Tabula Rasa” continues to pray that the next generation will get to live free of the stain of the “fuck-ups of our fathers.”
If this all sounds deadly serious, know that every message is delivered with a patient and delicate touch. “Sue Me” might be the coldest Björk kiss-off this side of “Sod Off,” but the drums and ambience are too lively to catch all of that darkness and determination straight away. So much of this album feels like traversing the bucolic, techno-organic spaces depicted in the video for “The Gate” or else swooning inside the heady inner space of “Blissing Me.” The lyrics are a breadcrumb trail to peaceful enlightenment, but there’s so much more to take in along the way. You can experience Utopia as a vast expanse of intriguing flute, drum, and vocal textures; get lost envisioning the mythical vistas they evoke when stacked on top of each other; or follow Björk on her path to lasting peace. Each approach offers new rewards.