Review: Björk finds bliss in the otherworldly ‘Utopia’

Bjork performs at Governors Ball in New York City. (AG/Flickr)

“Utopia,” Björk’s latest album, can be seen as a companion to 2015’s “Vulnicura,” as it explores many similar subjects. “Vulnicura” functioned as a way for the Icelandic singer to process a breakup with her long-term partner, American artist Matthew Barney. Naturally, the album took on a somber tone; however, on “Utopia,” things are noticeably brighter, like a light at the end of a tunnel.

“Arisen My Senses,” the album’s opening track, immediately communicates that change. It begins like a cool spring morning, with the sound of chirping birds, just before shifting into a dense mix of colorful synth chords, subtle harp sounds and complex, layered vocals.

Björk built the song around a sample from Arca, the electronic music producer who returns as a co-producer after his previous work on “Vulnicura.” The song’s production, which is both lush and euphoric, expertly sets the tone for the colorful world explored throughout “Utopia.”

The next track, “Blissing Me,” features a similar swirl of acoustics and electronics, and tells the story of two “music nerds” falling in love as they share songs with one another. The lyrics — “He reminds me of the love in me / I’m celebrating on a vibrancy” — capture the bliss and excited nervousness of a blossoming relationship, and they work well to convey the singer’s renewed openness to  love.

On “The Gate,” Björk explores the same concept from a more immediate perspective. “My healed chest wound transformed into a gate / Where I receive love from / Where I give love from,” she sings. The blooming synth chords and fleeting woodwind textures create an atmosphere that is both comforting and encapsulating.

“Utopia’s” sonic landscapes are incredibly cohesive; all of these songs feel like they are set in the same world. The orchestral flute arrangements — a recurring motif — are both playful and serene, as are the ambient bird sounds placed behind the instrumentation. These aspects create a vivid and otherworldly environment that can easily be stepped into.

Vestiges of a broken relationship, however, can still be found on “Utopia,” sometimes interrupting the tranquility. “Sue Me” features a stifled beat that stands out from the rest of the album, and the song’s lyrics — “Sue me all you want / I won’t denounce her origin” — detail a turbulent custody battle. The song “Features Creatures” utilizes a haunting instrumental, over which Björk sings about discomforting reminders of her former lover.

Yet these bleak moments do little to detract from “Utopia.” The complex emotional gradients only feel natural in light of Björk’s recent experiences. They ground the album in reality, an element that utopian visions often struggle with.

“Utopia” ends on a joyful note, with a radiant trio of songs. “Paradisia,” a short instrumental, explodes with heavenly euphoria, and “Saint” offers up a transcendent flute arrangement along with lyrics that speak to the healing power of music.

The album concludes with the hopeful “Forever Future,” on which the artist sings a repeated phrase: “Hold fort for love forever.” On “Utopia,” Björk has crafted a welcoming world that’s worth getting lost in.

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