Björk’s albums are often twins. Some years after its release, she described her album Post as the twin to its predecessor, Debut. Similarly, she declared Homogenic the twin of following album Vespertine. It’s easy to see why Björk draws these parallels as, though her albums are always unique and distinct in their sound, they are often deeply rooted to the record that came before or after, either through their themes, approach or context. Listening to her latest record Utopia, there’s no doubt it’s the sonic twin of the bleak and brooding Vulnicura.
In sound, there is a vast gulf between Utopia and its injured predecessor. While Vulnicura was a suffocating harbinger of death and despair, as claustrophobic as it was devastating, Utopia is a light, optimistic listen, peppered with birdsong and electronic trills, a record that celebrates life rather than heralding its end. And yet these two albums are probably more related than any other in Björk’s discography. Take the striking yonic image that first appeared on Vulnicura’s cover, depicted as a wound gouged into Björk’s chest. The cover of Utopia bears the same symbol, though now it’s stripped of its deadly overtones, coloured a pretty pastel pink and worn decoratively on Björk’s forehead. As she sings on the album’s lead single, her ‘healed chest wound’ has been ‘transformed into a gate’. The image that was once symbolic of pain has become one of optimism, the suggestive flowerlike opening pointing to rebirth, sexuality and hope.
If Vulnicura was the gloomy, pessimistic sibling, Utopia is its life-loving, joyful sister. On her latest album, Björk banishes the heavy, suppressive string arrangements in favour of bright flute flurries, the healing suggested towards Vulnicura’s end now complete. Björk declares her eagerness to embrace love and life on opening track ‘Arisen My Senses’, her voice layered over itself—as it is for much of the album—as she sings of a romantic and sexual reawakening.
After touring Vulnicura, Björk spoke of having earned a lightness and, on Utopia, this is finally achieved. On ‘Blissing Me’, a delicate airy track, Björk details the rush of new love, singing of a burgeoning relationship built on sending text messages and exchanging mp3s. There is a juvenile hopefulness to her voice as she gasps breathlessly about the new man in her life, her vocals at once cautious but brimming with an almost uncontainable joy. But along with this juvenility comes a certain sexuality. As Thom Yorke once said, Björk’s voice is “very sexual, but at the same time very childlike.” It’s something we find throughout Utopia, Björk giddy with a childish wonder while freely expressing her sexuality as she sings of her “spine curved erotically” in ‘Losss’ and “Bosoms and embraces / Oral, anal entrances” on ‘Body Memory’.
But Björk’s utopia is not yet complete. A dark underbelly lies beneath several tracks, hinting that Björk’s idyllic world isn’t quite the finished utopia she’d like it to be. On the near ten-minute epic ‘Body Memory’, Björk’s voice is punctuated by the bark of a feral animal while the previously breezy electronics threaten to become suffocating once more, the choral accompaniment sounding less euphoric and more foreboding. However, Björk eventually learns to shun anxiety and hand herself over to destiny. “Like the ancestors before me / Show me the flow,” she sings, refusing to allow uncertainty to anchor her. The track can be read as a response to Vulnicura’s similarly lengthy centrepiece ‘Black Lake’. While ‘Black Lake’ indulged in its own misery however, ‘Body Memory’ is able to pull itself free.
Though on happier territory, Björk has lost none of her ferocity, particularly when it comes to defending her children. On ‘Sue Me’ (perhaps the closest we get to a pop song in its traditional format), Björk directs her ire at former partner and father of her daughter Matthew Barney. The pair are currently embroiled in a custody battle from which Björk makes it clear she has no intention of backing down. “Sue me all you want,” she goads over a hostile electronic landscape, before comparing their situation to the tale of King Solomon, in which two mothers argue over the parenthood of a child, with one agreeing to have it cut in half. On ‘Sue Me’, Björk suggests Barney’s claim is the result of a historic patriarchy that has sought to disempower women for generations. “He took it from his father / Who took it from his father,” she sings, before demanding a change: “Let’s break this curse / So it won’t fall on our daughter / And her daughter /And her daughter.”
While ‘Sue Me’ is about a personal strife, when Björk sings of ‘our daughter’, there is a sense she is referring to more than just her own child. On following track ‘Tabula Rasa’, she yearns for a fresh start free from the “fuckups of the fathers” while on album closer ‘Future Forever’, she longs to “Weave a matriarchal dome.” On Utopia, Björk is envisioning a paradise not just for herself, but for womankind, a place free from patriarchy and male dominance. It’s the world she wants for her daughter, who she addresses several times through the album, but more widely, for every daughter.
Utopia is an album that unravels cautiously, the heartbreak detailed in Björk’s last album still weighing on her mind. But despite her anxieties, she is ready to venture back into love. Not since 2011’s Biophilia has she sounded so full of wonder, except now, instead of tectonic plates and crystal formations, the source of her joy is more tangible and human. Like all of Björk’s work, Utopia is rich in context and layers, making dissecting it a hefty (though hugely enjoyable) task. It unfurls carefully, melodies emerging almost at random from its glimmering surface, forming and unforming before our eyes, plumes of euphoria blossoming from its electronic pool, dissipating as quickly as they arrived. Utopia is an album that takes time to unravel, but when it does, its beauty is flooring.