Wednesday 29 November 2017

Björk - Utopia

Björk - Utopia

Each of Björk's albums has a different sound world. There's the techno-pop of 'Post', the delicate electronica of 'Vespertine', the sheer chaos of 'Volta', and the unique mix of instrumentation and technology of 'Biophilia' amongst others.

For 'Utopia', it's flutes. At the core of the production is a twelve-piece Icelandic flute ensemble, the wind instruments an obvious representation of the natural world. Adding in plucked harps, birdsong, animal calls and orchestral strings, Björk creates a veritable jungle of sound, rich, lush and warm. Amongst it all is her vocal, frequently used as just another texture within the cacophony. That's perhaps most apparent on Claimstaker, with a skipping bassline and strings that gradually become more expansive as Björk sings of becoming one with nature.

'Utopia' is multi-faceted, however, both musically and metaphorically. As, perhaps, you'd expect from Björk, it's all underpinned by technology and, like with her previous album 'Vulnicura', beats are provided by Venezuelan producer Arca. This is a utopia where the natural world blends with technology, a futuristic biome of wind instruments and throbbing rhythms. Take the sprightly Courtship, for instance, where a dance of flutes and beats flutter and skitter about one another, or the title track where processed rhythms shuffle in and out of focus like insects. Even at its most sparse, the album brims with beautiful, harmonious moments amongst its abstractions.

If this sounds like a clichéd vision of a utopia, know that this comes through the filter of Björk with all her unique eccentricities. It's also a somewhat political album in places: the focus on the natural world in particular a reflection of her views on climate change. Tabula Rasa depicts a blank slate in which Björk passes the torch to a younger generation (perhaps even her daughter specifically) and urges us not to repeat "the fuckups of the fathers" and notes now is the time "for us women to rise". This is Björk at her most urgent and feminist.

Above all, though, 'Utopia' is an album about love and in that sense, it makes an opposing companion piece to the visceral melancholy of 'Vulnicura' in which she explored her breakup with former partner and artist Matthew Barney. Now she's re-discovered love and this utopia is full of it. But love for whom? Or what?

On Blissing Me, all hypnotic harp and gentle beats, she sings of "two music nerds obsessing", perhaps over music, over each other, or both. And on Arisen My Senses, she sings of opening herself sexually and awakening her senses, the melodies overlapping in overwhelming ecstasy, those jittering flutes becoming the fluttering butterflies and nerves of newfound love. On the spine-tingling Saint, however, music is her salvation, personified as a female saint who heals with powerful music: "music heals too," she sings, "I'm here to defend it."

Be it love for others, oneself, or for all things, this utopia is a place of union: of the natural and technological worlds, of Björk and her collaborator. But there's anxiety here too, trouble in paradise. "I care for you," she yearns on The Gate over a sparse atmosphere of creeping synth flutters and beats, suggesting her nervousness and vulnerability. Losss sees her reflecting on her troubled past, a memory that's always there to be overcome. More explicitly, Sue Me addresses the custody battle with Barney for their daughter over abrasive, aggressive production. Even closer Future Forever has particularly minimal production, as if the hopeful future she describes is just a delicate dream.

Body Memory is the opus of the album, a distillation of all its themes. Each verse takes us on a journey through her life: the natural world, love, destiny, legal battles. At each stage her "body memory" kicks in as she learns to trust her instincts, the production developing through chaos and calm. It's also an ode to sex and the uncertainties of intercourse with a new partner, of overcoming anxieties of the past and forging ahead. It's grand and almost operatic, but at ten minutes long it's also long-winded. That goes for the album as a whole - her longest yet. Björk revels in this utopia, in this newfound love, but it's not always easy to be swept along with her.

Half the fun of a Björk album, though, is uncovering meanings in her lyrics. It's like a game. And 'Utopia' is full of complexities and layers, of strange experiments and mesmerising beauty, a manifesto for a brighter world and a statement of future intent. In our present times, this utopia is a nourishing comfort and a distant dream.


Gizzle's Choice:
* The Gate
* Body Memory
* Saint