Wall Street Journal

On ‘Utopia,’ Björk Finds Love and Trust Again

After her devastating breakup album, Björk returns with a new collection that shows she’s moved on to rediscover and savor joy.

Indisputably among the greatest in rock-and-pop history, Björk’s body of work is defined by seemingly dichotomous traits : It can be enigmatic, as if she is shielding herself behind complexity and disregard for orthodoxy, while at the same time transparent, emotional and deeply affecting. So it is once again with “Utopia” (One Little Indian), her new, exquisite album that is a testament to the wonder and beauty found in the quest for an idyllic life. It arrives on Friday.

To fully appreciate “Utopia” requires a bit of knowledge about its back story, though it stands on its own as another gem among her nine solo studio recordings. In 2015, she released “Vulnicura,” a remarkable document of the dissolution of her long relationship with artist Matthew Barney. Told chronologically beginning months before the breakup and continuing into its aftermath, the story unfolded as a series of personal revelations ; and as she grappled for insight and stability, one had the sense that Björk was unburdening herself in real time. She moved through the stages of grief toward a suggestion of recovery, but on the album jacket she was depicted with a gaping wound where her heart should have been.

Appropriately, the music of “Vulnicura” vacillated between harrowing and bittersweet with nary a reference to contemporary popular styles ; and, with its strings, female choir, warm keyboards and crackling, shard-like beats, was a marked departure from its predecessor, “Biophilia,” with its sound palette of celesta, gamelan, pipe organs, Tesla coils and pendulums. Björk’s sonic modes of communication change as she grows, and it’s been quite a while since she worked within the pop idiom.

Björk, who turns 52 on Tuesday, said she started to compose what became “Utopia” while on tour behind “Vulnicura,” a period in which she began to regain her equilibrium thanks in part to the “emotional empathy” she felt from her audience. The first song she wrote is the new album’s opening track ; in “Arisen My Senses,” words, often unintelligible, careen, but one phrase rings through : “Just a kiss is all there is.” That simple statement foreshadows the album’s primary lyrical theme : The capacity to love and trust has returned. In “The Gate,” she acknowledges where she had been—“Didn’t used to be so needy / Just more broken than normal”—but as the album evolves, it’s clear she’s moved on to rediscover and savor joy. Once again, she is free.

Enthusiasm rising as she wrote, an energized Björk sought a deep collaboration with Arca, the Venezuelan producer-composer who worked with her on “Vulnicura.” As his work demonstrates, he, too, is at ease in the world of experimental electronic music.

“We could be writers, arrangers, singers, producers—whatever it took,” she said when we spoke by phone last week. In “Blissing Me,” she mentions “two music nerds obsessing“ over MP3s they’ve sent each other. In praise of the intimacy of co-creating music, she sings, “The interior of these melodies is perhaps where we are meant to be.” She told me she was delighted by the process. “I felt like I was celebrating. I thought, ‘I’m back home.’”

Björk said a favorite part of her artistic process is developing arrangements for her compositions. “I love the feeling. The producer in me kicks in—what do I have ? How do I cook this up ?” With “Utopia,” an attitude, if not quite yet a theme for the arrangements, emerged. “I was obsessed with lightness and floating and flying. I just wanted to make music free of grit and structure.”

More than the lyrics, the music of “Utopia” speaks to liberation. Its buoyancy is conveyed by an orchestra of flutes, an instrument Björk played as a child. In “Saint,” flutes join with chirping birds—a motif that is repeated in several songs—to provide a breathing underpinning joined by gentle percussion. “Courtship” features flutes over chopped, clacking beats as voices dart in harmony. The thrilling arrangement of “The Gate” places Björk at the center, where she is surrounded by the choir’s warm tones and flutes that move steadily to the fore as beats come and go. The album feels weightless, ethereal at times, as if the flutes are transmitting not only sound but something that begins as breath, internally and close to the heart.

Björk said that connecting to her first instrument was a way to explore for the most part pleasant, satisfying memories and create a sonic template reflecting a utopian view of life informed by music, nature, friendship and love. Thus, once again, with “Utopia” she unravels a mystery and communicates from deep within.

Jim Fusilli

publié dans Wall Street Journal - 20.11.2017

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