Björk’s collaboration with Arca continues on this, her ninth album, Utopia. It’s an album that aims to escape from the dark, foreboding atmosphere of their previous outing, Vulnicura. Released two years ago, this was Björk’s break-up album from her long-term partner, and the father of her daughter, artist Matthew Barney. In contrast, Bjork has described Utopia as her ‘Tinder’ album, after the popular dating app which seems to have all-too-quickly taken its place as the ubiquitous method for all our modern coupling needs. These headline descriptions have a tendency to over simplify the picture though. To my ears Vulnicura falls far from the grim starkness one might expect from a self-styled album about divorce and, equally, Utopia is not without tension, in spite of its more joyful outlook. It also eschews the fast-pace I was expecting when it was linked with the Tinder app, which commodifies dating into an experience akin to online shopping. It’s quite possible the Tinder reference was an off-hand comment from Björk in an interview which has since been snapped up and seized upon as the central narrative, when this 71 minute record of amorphous songs, with intangible beats, clearly has deeper themes when considered overall.
That’s not to say Tinder isn’t on the agenda, or dating at least. That painful search for new loves and the temporary comforts they bring. ‘Courtship’ covers this most directly: ‘He turned me down, I then downturned another/ Who then downturned her’, which captures some of the churn of this manufactured method. The final lines of this verse capturing the essence of the experience less directly but, perhaps, more expertly: “He’s left with loving what he lost/ More than what he has”. The alienating business often reminding users more of human contact lost, than exciting them with the potential for new loves to be found, once they get used to the robotic distance and repetition of the format. Musically ‘Courtship’ has the jitteriest of beats, coupled with a somewhat jittery flute arrangement combined with percussive sounds that could almost represent the rapid swiping on a smart phone.
Elsewhere, we have more discourse on fleeting romance: ‘Blissing Me’ considers an affair between ‘music nerds’ who ‘send each other MP3’s. It starts life as one of the most beautiful pieces on the album, the picture painted mostly with vocals and harp (or harp samples). These sparse beginnings wind gradually towards a denser and more confusing rhythm that pulls and pushes with uncertainty, echoing the doubt in the lyric. The final verse closes with the question: “Did I just fall in love with love?”. This seems, to me, to point us towards the other central theme of the album. For the true repair job when a long-term relationship breaks down is not the instant gratification of an internet date, with its potential for providing a one-night stand, but learning to love again. Both learning to love yourself again and to feel that you deserve the love of another. The title track, ‘Utopia’, finds Björk exploring a soundscape built primarily from flutes and sampled birdsong, those two sound forms complimenting each other in their evocation of nature.
The exploration of nature continues with ‘Body Memory’, birdsong and flutes combine again, but this time with the support of the cellos that were so prominent in Vulnicura. The peace of the scene is disturbed significantly by the use of animalistic snarls, sampled as percussion sounds. Over nearly ten minutes the singer wrestles with her desires, a return to the more natural environment of her homeland, her certainty she’s not been tamed by years in the urban wilderness, the reawakening of a sort of primal sexuality that’s linked to a sense of place.
Utopia, it turns out, is actually the perfect partner for Vulnicura. It’s the next step in a process that is not simple, or straightforward. The sadness, anger and regret inherent in the break down of a long-term relationship make good fuel for music, there’s a clarity to those emotions. Utopia deals instead with what comes next, the uncertainty and long-winded journey towards a rediscovery of self. As a result, Utopia could be considered a less-focussed album, but I feel it is deliberately so. The run-time is longer, the melodies slighter. It takes its time, goes off on long tangents, allows rhythm and tune to dance in beautiful combat, always seeking peaceful escapism but often getting lost or side-tracked along the way. Both these albums fuse classical instrumentation with modern beats, electronics and sample-based sound construction. With its classical instruments Utopia tends towards the more organic sounding flutes and harps, while Vulnicura used striking strings. The melodies and motivations on the latter are clearer, but Utopia could turn out to be the bigger achievement, if we listeners are prepared to give it the time it demands. Its 14 songs and 71 minutes present a challenge to the contemporary listener, with our urban life experience reduced to a series of short teaser clips. Björk is boldly seeking her own past and a memory of her old self on this record, an escape to a love-fuelled fantasy world. Perhaps we can get there too if we can spare enough time for the journey.