Album Review: Bjork - Utopia

Bjork has been terrifying me since 1993.

I was ten years old, and the video for her single, “Human Behavior” received heavy airplay on MTV. I found the clip, directed by Michel Gondry, unsettling and nightmarish, and I found the song, powered by its bouncing, metallic, clanging rhythm, paired with Bjork’s husky caterwauling, irritating at best.

Iceland’s favorite daughter won me over, temporarily, two years later, with Post—specifically its oddball, big band-influenced single “It’s Oh So Quiet.” I bought the cassette, caught shit for listening to it by a kid I went to school with, and never really got into the rest of the album. I was 12, what would you expect? Years and years later, I bought it on CD at a neighbor’s garage sale for fifty cents. “Hyperballad” still slays, but, even at 34, I’ve never really sat down with this record.

Five years later, I tried again with Bjork, blind buying Selmasongs, simply because of the duet with Thom Yorke; I even rented and sat through Dancer in The Dark. Four years later, a friend in college gave me a burned copy of Medulla, her all a capella record. The cover art is horrifying to me, for some reason, and I think I made it less than 30 seconds into the first track before I took the CD out and never listened to it again.

In either 2005 or 2006, I watched the trailer for the film she starred in, made by then-partner, Matthew Barney, called Restraint Drawing 9—simply thinking about it now will probably keep me up tonight.

I don’t know why I find Bjork to be so unnerving. She’s just a quirky musician that makes music on her own terms—rarely would I ever consider something Bjork has made to be accessible. Her records are dense and difficult, and that’s the point. She wants to challenge her audience. She’s an ‘Artist’ with a capital A. She’s weird, but that’s the point, and she is admirably unafraid of taking risks.

Utopia, Bjork’s ninth studio effort, arrives nearly three years after her ‘break up’ record, Vulnicura. I wrote a review of Vulnicura, and I apparently really liked one song off of it, but haven’t listened to it since the beginning of 2015, promptly having moved on with my life. At the time I reviewed it though, I said it was dissonant sounding, and personal.

First and foremost, before I even begin talking about the content found within on Utopia, I just want to say that the cover art to this record is absolutely unacceptable. I’m not sure what exactly is happening—it straight up looks like she has a vagina growing out of her forehead, and her overall affect is that of a villain from the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. This cover art bothered me so much that I removed it from the files associated with it in my iTunes library and replaced with a still image of Kristen Wiig playing Bjork on “Saturday Night Live.”

Utopia is a not so much the inverse of Vulnicura, but it is being billed as a record about love and hope. At 14 songs, clocking it at well over 70 minutes, it’s also, as you can probably imagine, an absolute chore to get through it. Designed to, more than likely, be listened to from start to finish, I’ve found that I literally just cannot do it. I sit down with it, and I try, and it doesn’t work.

It should come as no surprise that Utopia is a dense and difficult album—and it finds Bjork working again with collaborator Arca, blurring the lines between organic and electronic sounds, finding to strike a balance between whimsical and disconcerting.

Much like Vulnicura, Utopia opens with one of the album’s few accessible and enjoyable moments—structured around near-trap-style drum bursts and swirling instrumentation, “Arisen My Senses” finds Bjork layering her vocals, and exploring all the facets of her range—soaring and strong or guttural and mumbled. “Just that kiss/was all there is,” she repeats throughout the song, with its lyrics organized into poetic fragments.

I had gone into Utopia with an open mind—I mean, I want to like Bjork, despite all of the obstacles that I have faced in the past. However, I hadn’t made it very far into the record when I found myself wincing—specifically at the lyrics. The mention of mixtapes and the world wide web in “Arisen My Senses” gave me minor cause for concern, but it was the cloying lyrics of “Blissing Me,” the album’s second track, that caused me to shut the album off during my initial listen: “Is this excess texting a blessing? Two music nerds obsessing…Sending each other MP3s/Falling in love to a song.” I mean, this is the kind of subject matter that young adult novels are made of.

The pacing of the album comes to a screeching halt with the plodding “The Gate,” which was apparently Utopia’s first single—a hilarious choice since it moves along at a glacial pace, complete with moody bits of near silence and a conclusion that is a bunch of weird vocal noises.

One thing that is very apparent from the album’s initial third is the importance of woodwinds—specifically, the flute. I mean, whatever is supposed to be on the front cover of Utopia is holding a flute, and a Stereogum headline from a few days after the album was released threatened that Bjork was going to release a live version of the album with more flutes, and during the album’s recording process, she started a 12-piece flute section.

The album gets weirder as it continues: “Body Memory,” the longest track of the set, features wild cat noises, as well as the rare utterance of profanity—“This fucking mist!” she exclaims nearly right out of the gate in a track that serves as a response to “Black Lake,” the ten minute centerpiece of Vulnicura.

Working through Utopia’s second half, it has dawned on me, after a number of attempts with this thing, that my problem is that, as a songwriter, Bjork really lacks clear direction. Musically, it’s all relatively self-indulgent experimentation, and the songs arrive as a horrific collision of her free-flowing howling vocals (often without any structure at all) and the music—orchestral and flowing at times, but also glitchy and dissonant. 

Despite the hopefulness that was found at the beginning of Utopia, it does descend into anger and confrontation in its second half as Bjork writes about the custody battle for her daughter with Matthew Barney, as well as her desire to ‘begin again’ in “Tabula Rasa”—“Clean plate: Tabula rasa for my children,” she sings. ‘Clean plate: Not repeating the fuckups of the father.”

After opening with what winds up being its strongest (or at least most tolerable) material, and heading into a difficult and dark middle, Utopia spends all of its energies prior to reaching its conclusion, wrapping up with two relatively lifeless, minimal, and unassuming tracks.

An adult solo artists since 1993, it seems worth mentioning that Bjork released an album in 1977, when she was 12, along with a jazz fusion record and a punk record, all before she joined The Sugarcubes in the late 1980s. In her early 50s, it’s admirable that Bjork, as an ‘Artist,’ still has something she wants to say, and that in doing so, she continues to take huge risks. It’s an understatement to say this music isn’t for everybody—but with that being said, who is it for? I’ve wondered that since pressing play on Utopia.

Is it for the public radio listener who hears “The Gate” played midday? Is it for that person who likes all things that fall under the blanket of ‘alternative’ music? Is it for the person who was in their early 20s when Debut came out, and they’ve stuck with Bjork for the last 25 years? Is it for the person who likes difficult, dense, inaccessible music—the person smarter than I am?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and there are no easy answers at the end of Utopia. A long, sprawling, challenging listen, I’m neither better, nor worse, for having listened, and for me, it was the kind of thing that I’m more than likely not going to remember after I hit ‘publish’ on this review, and remove the album from my iTunes library.