Before you start Björk‘s Utopia, picture the scene (if you’re old enough): it’s the 90s. Your teacher wheels in a TV with a VCR under it. They pull out a chunky old videotape from a dusty BBC sleeve, the one with the red, green, and blue stripe down it. In it goes, and out of the TV blasts the ridiculously bass-heavy sound of some nature or science documentary with a very distinct muzak-by-way-of-Classic FM sort of vibe.
That’s the easiest (and, yes, most reductive) way to sum up Björk’s new album. Both from the early singles and closer Future Forever, it’s clear that this is a sharp contrast to Vulnicura – the heavy, string-laden emotion is pared down for a frolic through the meadows, a lighter step through Björk’s psychological plane while birds and fairies gather around that endless flute.
Oh, the flute. Omnipresent in her Utopia, it’s also the element that could end up being a source of ridicule. It does work in giving Björk an organic foil between the layered vocals of a song like Saint, but the pastoral vibe seems almost too flimsy in its vintage-BBC2 glory. Björk is trying to communicate to us that she’s happier now than before, but it is at times almost too cloying. That is, of course, if we didn’t think she were so self-aware about it all.
Björk talks a good game about physicality on Claimstaker, perhaps a reference to her renewed interest in love and relationships. But it’s on Tabula Rasa where it all finally starts to appear believable, her rolled Rs talking about that eponymous clean slate for her children as her voice glides perfectly with the flute. It does continue Björk’s tradition of throwing words and concepts next to each other, but here they actually have purpose. What are we leaving for the next generation? Are they doomed to bear the sins of our relentlessly-documented and acrimonious pasts?
Utopia may not be Björk’s best album, but it will come as a surprise to no one that this is still an utterly fascinating and hypnotic piece of work, and arguably her most peaceful. Björk blooms to life on Loss, channelling that very word as the pastoral mix with Arca‘s lurching beats for something entirely magnificent. It continues through Courtship, travelling through the nearly 10-minute journey of Body Memory, and settles for a kaleidoscopic final act.
The themes here are plainer than ever, both in sonics and thematics. Björk creates a fragile peace in her 14-track perception of paradise, but oddly enough it’s when it cracks that the record truly comes alive. This Utopia may not be our idea, but it’s fascinating to peek into; Björk creates a world that seems wondrous to live in for a time, a temporary balm that sugarcoats the harsh realities of daily life… unless your idea of hell is a fuckload of flutes, of course. Then you’re screwed.