On the opening track of her wild new album Utopia, Björk sings as if she is Hydra-headed. The Icelandic artist layers up her expressive vocals on “Arisen My Senses,” entangling lyrical takes as harps cascade, and anxious beats boom and stutter, before giving way to airy space. Amidst lines describing the palm-trembling heat of sexual desire for a new partner, one couplet rings out: “We're weaving a mixtape / With every song.”
Björk has used vocal layering for years, notably on 2004’s entirely acapella Medúlla, as well as on her most recent album, the heartbreak song suite Vulnicura. On Utopia, her ninth studio record, it’s an artistic decision that feels particularly resonant. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Björk described the album opener as “almost like an optimist rebellion against the normal narrative melody. There’s not one melody. It’s like five melodies.” The vocal meshing neatly encapsulates the relentless curiosity that characterises Utopia. On the album, Björk expands her music into new dimensions to echo the new pathways her life has taken over the past couple of years.
Released in 2015, Björk’s previous album Vulnicura traced a desperately raw chronology of the breakdown of her marriage; in one of its many heartbreaking moments, she mourned the metaphorical “death of [her] family.” But since then, she’s found new bonds away from the traditional family unit. She’s immersed herself in New York’s underground nightlife community, has started playing DJ sets at events ranging from a Tri Angle Records anniversary party, to a Brooklyn gay bar’s RuPaul’s Drag Race screening, and seems to have grown ever closer to her enigmatic collaborators. Björk’s latest album — of which she says around 40% was co-written with Arca — is alive with the excitement of this fresh chapter. Utopia’s 10-minute centerpiece “Body Memory,” with its lurching electronics, and ecstatic harmonies from Iceland’s all-woman Hamrahlid Choir, is shot through with the invigorating jolt of a life-affirming night out: “Then my body memory kicks in / On this Brooklyn dance floor / Sweating with these rhythms / Rotate this matrix.”
There's more to discover on a night out than just the latest club textures — and the headiness of new romance pulses through a number of Utopia’s songs. She’s sung about sex before, memorably in Vespertine’s erotic ballad “Cocoon.” But now, her language is more direct than ever. She lustily remembers a lover who “entered me” among the sprightly flutes of “Courtship”; on the subtle and assured “Blissing Me,” the seemingly innocuous act of swapping MP3s sparks the “fantasy” of a hook-up. In “Losss,” meanwhile, a grinding industrial collaboration between Björk, Arca, and the Houston experimental club producer Rabit, the state of liberty itself is a turn on. “The past is bondage,” she sings. “Freedom aphrodisiac.”
There’s a central generosity embedded in the album’s sometimes-confrontational music, as Björk finds parallels between her personal evolution and a desire for systemic change.
Björk is feeling herself in her newfound independence. But she’s not content to be the sole beneficiary of the empowerment that comes with it. This year, she’s spoken out about a Danish director who sexually harassed her on a film set, and in the press cycle for her last album she astutely called out the misogyny of critics who discredit her production work. Utopia unambiguously foregrounds her pro-women point of view. “Sue Me,” with its raging hellscape of beats and pitched-down vocals, is one of the album’s most intoxicating moments. It specifically addresses Björk’s custody battle for her daughter with her ex-husband: “It's time to teach you some dignity,” she sings with conviction. Meanwhile, “Body Memory” characterises patriarchy as “Kafka-esque,” recognizing how dumbly nonsensical the system that underpins our society really is. At other moments, she offers more hopeful strategies to combat inequality. The rhapsodic flute symphony “Tabula Rasa” is a decisive call-to-action, and carries a particular weight in the wake of this year’s many sexual abuse allegations against public figures: “It is time / For us women to rise, and not just take it lying down / It is time / The world, it is listening.”
Make no mistake: Utopia isn’t always an easy listen. In fact, it ranks alongside Medúlla and 2011’s Biophilia as among Björk’s most experimental works. But there’s a central generosity embedded in the album’s sometimes-confrontational music, as she finds parallels between her personal evolution and a desire for systemic change. The album’s closing track “Future Forever,” shares a similar meditative quality to Björk’s 1997 classic “All Is Full Of Love.” It’s just as gorgeous to listen to, but is marked by a significantly expanded vision. In the song, she returns to the language of Utopia’s album opener, referencing the historically women-dominated art form of weaving as she lays out her plans for the future: “Watch me form new nests / Weave a matriarchal dome / Build a musical scaffolding.” As it turns out, Utopia isn’t just about self-discovery and reinvention. It dares to imagine that our flawed society might get the overhaul it needs, too.