There's an interesting bit of cultural bookkeeping that takes place each year. Anniversaries arrive as a signal to consider (or perhaps reconsider) the way past works have changed the world and ourselves. Twenty years ago this year, Björk released Homogenic, an extroverted and massively influential record that has gone on to be considered her defining achievement. Now, only days after her 52nd birthday, she has released another towering musical marvel.
Two years ago, Vulnicura found Björk in a state of simultaneously burning and freezing numbness following the end of her marriage. Utopia, which she referred to prior to its release as her "Tinder album," is the antithesis and the antidote to Vulnicura's remarkable sorrow. From its first moments, with shuddering low and and sparkling harps, "Arisen My Senses" is more direct and volcanic than the notoriously physical singer has sounded in a decade.
It's unusual to hear anyone of Björk's age sing about new love, but she approaches the subject with elation, intelligence, perceptiveness, and gravity. With a sonic palette of densely clustered woodwinds, the record has a sprightliness and levity that suits the unmannered exuberance of her one-of-a-kind voice. Co-produced with Venezuelan producer Arca (who also worked on Vulnicura), Utopia has a peaceful and pastoral quality that makes it seem almost ancient, at the same time as its lyrics and fascinating electronic textures make it a beguiling and forward-thinking compositional work.
Following a prologue of sorts that finds the dreamy drift of "Blissing Me" melting into the boundless, aching introspection of "The Gate," Björk unravels the myth of blossoming romance by directly confronting all the baggage she carries and continues to carry as someone who has experienced great loss, as a public figure, and as a mother. The uncomplicated serenity of the album's early pieces gives way to worries and distractions; Falling in love is not as simple as it may seem. Running over seventy minutes, Utopia is by far Björk's longest album, but it's far from being laboured or overstuffed. Instead there is a clarity of vision and storytelling that is simply stunning to behold.
Throughout the record, the beats and textures created by Björk and Arca stutter and shake, mirroring the searching nature of the lyrics. The album's centrepiece "Body Memory" stretches out for nearly ten minutes, but never feels like disparate parts sewn together, or a single idea spread out too far. The piece evolves, marked by melting rhythms and untraceable, insular melodies. The sound of bird calls and animal snarls mark the track, and others.
As the record progresses from its idyllic opening, it establishes a juxtaposition between the intimate candidness of Björk's lyrics - "When I spot someone /Who is same height as you / And goes to same record stores / I literally think I am five minutes away from love" from the gorgeous "Features Creatures" - and the base carnality and unpredictability of love.
Moving through anger on the thumping "Sue Me," and resoluteness in the face of uncertainty and fear on "Tabula Rasa," Utopia's title is cast in an unusual light. Perfect, everlasting happiness may not be attainable, but throughout our heroine is determined to build the best life for herself and her loves ones despite any hardship that may face them. As the record winds to a close with the instrumental "Paradisa" and the luminescent "Saint," an inner light and peace takes over from the external pressure that produced the album's often chaotic and cathartic middle.
Twenty years agi, Björk closed Homogenic with "All is Full of Love," a mercurial and tender balm for lonely hearts. Here, on the beautiful, miasmic "Future Forever," she directly quotes herself in words and melody: "Trust your head around." It's as if she's reciting a lesson she's forgotten. Reaffirming not only her ability to innovate, but also her profound personal strength, Utopia is the sound of Björk flourishing once again. It's as thrilling as it's ever been.
Utopia is out now on CD, vinyl, and digital formats.