Ever since Björk began her journey away from the Top 40’s orbit twenty years ago with Homogenic, part of her appeal has lain in one never quite knowing her next move, the past two decades providing a monolithic a cappella record (Medúlla), a series of techno-naturalist statements rendered as an interactive app (Biophilia) and a VR-augmented heartbreak album (Vulnicura) to variously devour, investigate and wade through. But throughout the wild inventiveness, her personality — sparky, thoughtful, combative, playful, unconventional — has remained intact, contributing to Björk becoming someone that people feel they know personally, even intimately: fevered discussion abounds on messageboards about her Myers-Briggs personality type, her stated artistic preferences picked over for character clues, and consequently, as her music veers further away from the chart-ready, her most recent albums have taken on an almost diaristic dimension.
So it is that Utopia can be digested on two separate levels. The first is as a sort of enchanted soundworld from a bucolic fantasy land where the light is always golden and the forests verdant but forebodingly dense and peculiar, or maybe from the kind of a extraplanetary undersea realm that features in Blue Planet’s most psychedelic adventures, through which huge shoals of strange creatures move with a loose oneness, together but never in perfect sync. Into these unfamiliar environments Björk sprinkles her unmistakable soprano like a trail of melodic breadcrumbs, acting as wayfinder through the woods while songs blend into one another punctuated by birdsong, growling animals and varying degrees of aural discombobulation and digital flutters.
The other level is as a narrative progression from 2015’s Vulnicura, in which the music is simply a vessel for Björk’s latest collection of life stories. In this reading, the songs nearly become liturgy: simple, repeated melodies carry the stories of Björk’s recovery from heartache, her affirmations of better times ahead or wishes for her daughter’s future. The music, meanwhile, ripples and eddies below, offering texture, scenery, or a sonic set of stage directions to accompany the drama.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it’s when these two levels interact that Utopia bubbles above interesting and becomes brilliant. Arisen My Senses opens the album with fearless harp strikes that decay into bustling, strident hisses, while Björk describes the intimacy of compiling a mixtape for a new love interest. As she giggles with giddy excitement while singing, of all things, a web address, the song dies down then reignites, and the psychological buffeting of joy and nervousness that accompanies the first flushes of a modern romance is felt as viscerally as it is verbally.
Equally, the story of rejection and resilience on Courtship is augmented by skittering percussion and a triumphal flute arrangement that bolsters both the song and Björk herself wonderfully evocatively, and Loss, the seven-minute highlight of the album, takes a brand of baroque beauty more readily associated with Joanna Newsom and spatters it at first with a kind of glitched techno and then with harshly manipulated white noise that nearly reverse-metamorphosises into a straight-up club track. It’s exciting, disorientating, fascinating and weirdly moving, the sort of mosaic music whose detail only becomes more impressive the closer you listen.
Elsewhere, though, Björk’s desire to fill us in on her recent romantic encounters gets the better of her: Blissing Me’s simple melody is not enough to sustain a five-minute story of “two music nerds obsessing / sending each other mp3s” that’s told with all the prosaic artlessness of a lovestruck teen, and strangely quotidian musings also blight Features Creatures (“When I hear someone with same accent as yours asking directions I literally think I am five minutes away from love”); from the woman responsible for the poetry of Unravel and Unison, such thin work is frustrating.
Even when her lyrics become righteously engaging, as on the one-two patriarchy punch of Sue Me (“Let’s break this curse so it won’t fall on our daughters!”) and Tabula Rasa (“Break the chain of the fuck-ups of the fathers / For us women to rise and not just take it lying down!”) the disconnection between her rousing, explicit declarations and the knotty, almost cubist electronica beneath is jarring. More disappointing still, as she returns to the same breathy flute and synth sounds again and again during the course of the album, the whole effect is rather wearing: at 72 minutes, Utopia is Björk’s longest record by far, and its relentlessly uneven terrain only amplifies that bloat.
Indeed, with that in mind, the final two songs feel as if they’re from a different record entirely: calm, packed with melodic succulence largely absent elsewhere and stripped of the electronic hectoring of the album’s first hour, The Saint and Future Forever are cocooning, cathartic cleansers whose arrival is dearly welcome, to the extent that it's tempting to wonder how much more effective Utopia would be if Björk had been denied some of her more self-involved moments.
As it is, though, Utopia remains, in its flawed honesty, floridity and explorative nature, as good an expression of late-period, high-concept Björk as one could hope for. Like Vulnicura and Biophilia before it, Utopia is another universe of a record, this time fascinated by deconstruction and remodelling, sex, gender and rebirth whose music, you sense, is only one part of what she is trying to express – an entirely separate article, for example, could be written about the resonance of the album’s artwork and photography. On the one hand, that’s a shame: Bjork was once one of pop’s most disciplined and articulate characters, and that self-restraint and communicative drive is sorely missed here. On the other, amid the current dystopia of the modern world, being encouraged to take time and patience to investigate the nature of womanhood, love, joy and utopian ideals is rather inviting. From that angle, then, perhaps Björk is being more direct than ever.