The Guardian

Björk : Utopia review – romance, angst and troublingly thin tunes ★★★☆☆

The musician’s self-professed ‘Tinder album’ spins from ecstasy to frustration by focusing more on soundscapes than melody

At this stage in her career, no one expects Björk’s latest record to sound much like her last one. And yet it’s hard to avoid heaving a thankful sigh when Arisen My Senses, the opening track of her ninth studio album, Utopia, crashes into life : birdsong giving way to bright splashes of electronics, beatific-sounding harp chords and cascading beats not unlike the oft-sampled rhythm track of Schoolly D’s old rap classic PSK, What Does It Mean ? It sounds positively ecstatic, which comes as a relief. Utopia’s predecessor, 2015’s Vulnicura, was a remarkable record, a latterday entry into the canon of legendary break-up albums. It attained its place alongside Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear and Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks by setting its fathomless misery to atonal string arrangements and abstract electronics that, during its central track, kept vanishing into a single flatlining beep. It was raw, brave, challenging, unique and all the other adjectives heaped on it in reviews, but with the best will in the world, any album so harrowing that the appearance of gloom-laden vocalist Anohni constitutes a moment of light relief is going to be one that defies you to listen to it repeatedly.

Björk : Vulnicura review – a sucker punch of a breakup album

Björk chronicles the demise of her relationship with gorgeous choruses and audacious melodies on one of her most cohesive – and emotional – albums yet, writes Alexis Petridis, writes Alexis Petridis
Read more
Utopia reanimates Vulnicura’s collaboration with Venezuela-born electronic auteur Arca, but is made of lighter material. Aside from his endlessly shifting soundscapes, distorted beats and penchant for sonic tapestries made from manipulated vocal samples, the album’s primary sound is woodwind, provided by an assembly of 12 female flautists from Reykjavik, which automatically lends it a far airier quality than the claustrophobic Vulnicura. It is, Björk says, her “Tinder album”, and its advance billing as a kind of Songs for Swinging Bachelorettes is borne out by its lyrics, which are obsessed both with technology and the vicissitudes of budding romance. “Is this excess texting blessing ?” ponders Blissing Me, the saga of “two music nerds … sending each other MP3s”, before reverting to grief : “our physical union a fantasy, I just fell in love with a song”. Courtship, meanwhile, does indeed seem to deal with the emotional after-effects of blithely swiping left on a dating app : “he downturned me, I then downturned another, who then downturned her – the paralysing juice of rejection”.

All this is set to music that constantly shifts like landscape from a train window. If it’s less hard work emotionally than Vulnicura, Utopia is still filled with tracks that float free from any kind of formal verse-chorus structure, and that occasionally sound as if they’re being improvised. But clearly an enormous amount of thought and care has been expended on the sound of the album, and on the timbre of Björk’s voice – there’s much deliberate rolling of rs for dramatic effect and playing on the quirks of her accent. And it frequently yields breathtaking results : the way the harp and flutes give way to a punishing industrial rhythm on Losss, on which the post-divorce gloom of Vulnicura suddenly erupts again ; the 10-minute sprawl of Body Memory, a song that keeps swinging from fear to a desire to live in the moment, overflowing with choral vocals, glitching beats and buoyant, breathy woodwind.

Equally, there are times when you wonder whether as much attention has been lavished on the tracks’ central melodies, which sometimes seem troublingly slender. Blissing Me hangs on the same eight-note refrain for virtually the entire song ; the drone of Features Creatures feels flat rather than hypnotic ; Tabula Rasa has a gorgeous, shimmering arrangement, a beautiful lyric about parenthood (“I hope to give you the least amount of baggage, you got the right to make your own fresh mistakes”) but no real tune to hang them on. At those moments, wading through Utopia’s 71 minutes can be a strangely frustrating, alienating experience, like watching a very long film where the camera is continually focused on the scenery rather than the action.

It all ends with a defiant statement of intent. “Imagine a future and be in it … your past is a loop, turn it off,” she sings on Future Forever. It’s presumably a reference to escaping the fallout of the events detailed on Vulnicura, but it might as well be Björk’s musical mission statement. In a sense, Utopia fulfils it : it doesn’t sound like anything else, it’s audibly the work of an artist mapping out their own fresh musical territory. But occasionally, it also feels like the work of an artist with their eyes so firmly fixed forward they’ve blocked out their audience : an emotional journey you watch, intrigued, from a distance, rather than feel or participate in.

Alexis Petridis

publié dans The Guardian - 23.11.2017

 

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