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Bjork – “Utopia” Review

Feeling over melody for the Icelandic queen of avant garde pop

After the sheer misery and depths of pain of Vulnicura, Utopia marks a decidedly brighter and happier point in Bjork’s life and music. Penned, constructed and arranged as a sister album to Vulnicura, Utopia in many ways has the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor.

“Arisen Your Senses” is a wonderful explosion of sound and joy. Proper chords, heartfelt strings, booming kick drums, breezy woodwind and declarations of love. Woodwind is the central instrument of choice for the album and the section has its own voice throughout most of the songs. At times they underscore Bjork, at times they have their own lead. At times the album nods to Vespertine and “Blissing Me” touches closest with a lovely harp backbone. It also nods towards some of the more straight forward electronica such as “The Gate” which takes a more minimalist approach in what is a densely packed album.

However, it’s by the time you reach the title track you realise that the melodies, complexities and denseness of the strings and woodwind are so lush and intricate that actually there’s no real hook to dive into. Sure the track is beautiful, but it’s quite difficult to get into if you need a tangible melody and beat to follow. If you struggle with that, you’ll struggle with this album from start to finish. As it is, this track is light, fluffy and symphonic. “Body Memory” pushes us back to Medulla times with vocal arrangements and Arca’s thick, clumsy percussion pushing a dark and industrial track. Thematically, its ten minute piece is the cross over track between this album and the last. It does however have the way for the fantastically creepy “Features Creatures”. The song sounds like wind echoing down a throat, or a whale cry that Bjork sings over. It’s a rare quiet moment and the creepy woodwind that slinks in makes it all the more atmospheric. It’s an absolute stand out.

Much of the middle portion of Utopia bleeds into each other. “Courtship” is jaunty but because it sounds like a roller-coaster of emotion, it hops about without regard for structure. “Losss” on the flip side is regimented and machine like. The dark crunches of drum machines deflect the simple refrain of harps and flutes and it really reminds me of a slowed down version of All Neon Like. “Sue Me” is visceral and aggressive with low growls of synths and samples that freak out and hint at a melody that I can’t fathom but love. It’s like someone is regurgitating words back at you which would make sense given its a song about a custody battle. “Tabula Rasa” is spell binding as Bjork’s lyrics talk about how she wants to protect her child from all the hurt in the breakup – but in doing so acknowledges “you’ll have shit to deal with soon enough”. For all the unusual production and alien structures, Bjork often comes steaming in with pure clarity with her words and this is one of the best examples of that.

“Claimstaker” is awesome, but also quite frustrating. There is a killer dance track here that’s ignored for an abstract vocal arpeggio montage instead before “Paradisa” gives the woodwind and birdsong its own little piece. It’s timely because the album ramps up the heavenly beauty as it goes for the other stand out track “Saint”. This has rich melodies, empathy, emotion and so much going on – it almost makes you wonder why so much of the rest of the album is atonal at times. This is up there on her top-tier of tracks and shows when she wants to conform to song structures, she’s lost none of her charm and ability. The album closes with a Cocteau Twins like “Future Forever” with circus organ echoes, warm audio cuddles and loving kiss.

Each album has a theme, instrument and vibe and this is about love, woodwind and feeling over melody. At times, I am utterly mesmerised and blown away with Utopia. Other tracks I still struggle to find an in point into. I think it will be an album I will appreciate more as it gets older and so if at first you don’t enjoy, give it time to mature.

Recommended Track : Saint

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