By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)
The greatest looming threat to a pop singer’s career isn’t necessarily a diminishing talent for songwriting. More often than not, it’s the artist’s waxing age that does him or her in. Popular music is so heavily steeped in the exaltation of youth that showing even the most innocuous signs of aging can spell death for a musician’s career. Crow’s feet and receding hairlines won’t move albums or bolster streaming numbers when there exists an arsenal of cherubic up-and-comers at the ready to capitalize on the vacancy left by those former hitmakers. In the face of oncoming cultural irrelevance, these older artists are left with essentially two options: accept defeat and resign to a life of musical obsolescence or combat the aging process by way of artistic reinvention.
Madonna fended off antiquity by crafting pop songs through her ever-morphing registers of personal maturity. Neil Young did it by striking up avuncular (and symbiotic) relationships with the likes of Devo and Sonic Youth. And Bowie had burned through so many iterations during his career that his name is practically synonymous with musical metamorphosis.
But for Björk, musical mutability has been less a carapace against the ravages of time and more of a compulsion. Embracing the onslaught of alternative rock in the late ‘80s with the Sugarcubes and later discovering electronica the following decade, Björk’s career is a brazen protest against musical stagnation. To be sure, there have been no periods of stasis for an artist whose career has thrice begun in earnest. Yet on Utopia, her ninth album as a solo musician, Björk mistakes heterodoxy for being boundary-pushing and heartbreak for wisdom in an engaging yet familiar meditation on interpersonal relationships.
Utopia marks the second collaboration with producer Arca, whose panoply of twitching, programmed synths undergirds and guides Björk through her vicissitudes of jubilance, despair, and altruism. Relying mostly on Apollonian chamber music, Arca, along with fellow producers Rabit and Björk herself, crafts a thoughtful collection of dynamic, if lukewarm instrumentals. A delicately plucked harp carries Blissing Me. An ethereal chorus propels Features Creatures. The album’s title track is driven by a flute. As are Losss, Courtship, and Paradisia. The music is decidedly stately in its restraint, but Björk’s artistry has never championed understatement in the interest of normalcy. This raises the question “Can Utopia be called ‘experimental’ if it resists subversion?” Is Björk truly challenging herself or just giving us more of the same?
In response to the malaise and despair of Vulnicura, a self-described “heartbreak album,” Björk seeks to attain self-actualization on Utopia. Inaugural track Arisen My Senses explores the physicality of love as it intersects with musicianship and the advent of the internet: “Just that kiss / Was all there is / My palms pulsating of the things I want to do to you.” Physical sensation proves the gateway to fulfillment, much in the same way solitude and pastoral asceticism do in the Emersonian Claimstaker. “The forest is in me […] This is my home.” She’s markedly more ecstatic in comparison to her lovelorn self on Vulnicura, but Björk isn’t without trepidation when it comes to happiness. On the track Utopia, though she’s found comfort in her current situation, “Utopia: it isn’t elsewhere, it’s here,” Björk maintains an untraceable wariness about her: “My instinct has been shouting at me for years, saying ‘Let’s get out of here!’ / Huge toxic tumor bulging underneath the ground here.”
Ideas are inherently fragmentary. David Lynch likens them to fish swimming in our consciousness that are caught by chance rather than created by design. Björk seems to feel similarly, given that most of the lyrics to Utopia are fractious in form. As such, many lines come off as insular and underdeveloped. In the case of Saint, they’re plain clunky: “She has entered me thousand fold often / And undone knots at my most awkward.” The same is true of Courtship: “I then upturned a green-eyed giant / Who upturned and entered me.” The three producers’ decision to largely forego the inclusion of drums creates a decentering feeling, which is exacerbated by the songs’ fractured lyrics, yet they rarely add up to anything significant. And when attached to Björk’s amorphous melodies, her words only distract from the aesthetic of her voice.
The fallout of her past relationship hasn’t quite yielded the profundity she aims for on Utopia. It’s left her more guarded, certainly, according to The Gate: “My healed chest wound transformed into a gate.” But Björk doesn’t arrive at any major conclusions about love. She is, however, careful not to sully her children’s conception of a relationship in the wake of her heartache: “Tabula rasa for my children, let’s clean up, break the chain of the fuck ups of the fathers.” She’s selfless in her resolve not to let her shit ruin others’ chances at happiness. A benevolent gesture in a record otherwise overflowing with navel-gazing.
Björk’s youthfulness is self-evident in her resistance to stagnation and complacency. She’s outgrown alt-rock as well as dance music, but her alacrity to explore new musical territory keeps her from the status of musical curmudgeon. If we’re lucky, she’ll continue to embrace the future of experimental music and search out new musical identities for the rest of her career. If we’re luckier still, they’ll be more fruitful than here on Utopia.