On Falling Out of Love with Björk

I believe that Björk’s ninth adult solo album Utopia
is the execution of a singular vision, and I am happy for her
achievement. I admire her finished product from a remove, like
a perfect-looking couple whose bed I will never share or a
glorious penthouse spread across the pages of Architectural
Digest
, whose doors I will never enter. There are many
terrible things in this world and Björk certainly is not one of
them.

But, oh, how she vexes me. If life is a series of
disappointments, mine has been punctuated by the following
string of events since 2004’s Medúlla: I wait years
for a new Björk album, she releases it, it does very little for
me, I think, “God, now I have to wait years before I have the
chance to fall in love with new Björk music, as I once did,” I
wait those years, I’m disappointed again, etc. And yet I hold
out hope, and am reintroduced to the lesson life keeps trying
to teach me but that never seems to stick: Optimism has a funny
way of keeping you down.

There’s a fine line between hope and delusion. I can clearly
recognize that the Björk of today is not the Björk I fell in
love with in the early ‘90s. Her music has gone from sonically
ready-to-wear future-pop to listening music that’s more akin to
haute couture. I don it once, it goes back on the shelf, I sit
and wait. Her increasingly fussy output, often as elaborately
devised and referred to by Björk with the same kind of
breathless enthusiasm with which she’s always discussed her
work, is often admirable, but in my experience, rarely
pleasurable.

As is often in the case with past love, I find it hard to be
entirely fair here. I have less patience for Björk’s
indulgences than those of others. I’m
obsessed
with
abstract

music
at the moment. My favorite album of the year is
virtually formless, an ambient album called
Avifaunal
by a duo from the UK called Pausal. That
album hits me like a surprise every time I listen to it; I’ve
still yet to make out exactly what I’m hearing. I do think I
hold Björk’s past greatness against her—when someone creates
previously inconceivable sounds that yet convey the kind of
simple sense of pop music, it’s hard not to get addicted to
that and want it to never stop. But it has stopped.

Björk’s work, too, is increasingly conversant with her past. If
her last album, 2015’s Vulnicura, evoked the
strings-and-distortion brutality of 1997’s Homogenic,
the warmth and intricacy of her latest, Utopia, is
overall more in line with 2001’s Vespertine. And just
as Vespertine was crafted as a conscious response to
its predecessor, so is Utopia, which picks up the
pieces of Vulnicura’s devastation, sometimes overtly.
“My healed chest wound / Transformed into a gate / Where I
receive love from / Where I give love from,” she sings in
Utopia’s
baffling first single
, “The Gate,” making direct reference
to the split-chest imagery she rocked on the cover of
Vulnicura, an album about the end of Björk’s 13-year
relationship with artist Matthew Barney, as well as the video
for that album’s 10-minute centerpiece “Black Lake.”

Utopia is peppered with references to Björk’s music.
Her lyrics reference past work (there’s some “Quicksand” in
“Sue Me,” a line in “Future Forever” that almost echoes one in
“All Is Full of Love,” the “self-sufficiency” in “Army of Me”
integrated in “The Gate”) and some of the beats seem to, as
well—the shrapnel-filled crash of the bass in “Losss” sounds
designed to recall “5 Years.” Whereas during Björk’s fruitful
pop period that spanned the release of her first three albums,
she seemed engaged with the bigger pop landscape, riffing on it
while often bettering it, lately it seems like Björk is most
engaged with Björk, and listening to her last two albums is
like listening to her talk to herself about herself. This is
made further frustrating because Björk’s taste in Björk runs on
the esoteric side:
Dazed reported in September
that the producer Arca
(Alejandro Ghersi), with whom Björk collaborated for the bulk
of Vulnicura and Utopia, “encouraged her to
pursue a direction she’d hinted at on obscure cuts like

“Batabid”
(a synth track from her Vespertine era)
and
“Ambergris March”
(from the
Drawing Restraint 9
soundtrack).”

Really, it all comes down to melody for me, and Björk’s have
been increasingly less inviting over the last 13 or so years.
Forget hooks; many of Utopia’s songs have no choruses
to speak of. The ones that do exist would hardly be mistaken
for earworms. So many of the tunes Björk sing-songs here are
the same kind of unresolved, deflating memories that repeat
every four or eight bars until they cease with their songs,
defeated.

I get the sense that Björk is challenging her listeners to
think beyond our expectations of her and music in general; her
songs are ecosystems and the melody coming out of her mouth is
just one element of incredibly complex sonic schemes, which run
the gamut here from incorporating a 12-woman flute crew, snippy
little forest rumblings, a synthetic panther growl, harps,
swirling voices, ruthless beats, and birdsong. Björk aligns
herself with the animals she samples, looping a series of notes
repeatedly, creating her own verbal calls. This approach is
simultaneously humble and vainglorious, suggesting her pop-star
persona is no longer the most important thing about her music
but also that her indulgences are interesting in themselves
because they are of her. The overall collage can be
enthralling—the album flutters on wings whose each
infinitesimal motion has been programmed, and there’s a string
of three nearly hummable tracks in the middle (“Courtship,”
“Losss,” “Sue Me”) whose sharp contrasts of melodic unruliness
and distorted percussion almost make you feel like the old
Björk is back. But without proper tuuuuuunes,
Utopia works more like a design project than a
utilitarian album to cherish for years to come, to mark your
life at this time, as the music you love often does. Björk
adorns her tracks handsomely, but ultimately, I can’t see the
tree for the ornaments.

Lyrically, Utopia follows the same highly personal
thread of Vulnicura—of all the surprising turns
Björk’s career could have taken, none is quite as conventional
as this immersion in the confessional. This can be
invigorating—her resolution to shield her daughter Isadora from
toxic masculinity stemming from “sins of the fathers” in “Sue
Me” deftly weaves feminism into her work more overtly than ever
without indication that she’s just virtue-signaling. She’s also
capable of making the most human processes sound like something
she’s the first person to experience: “My tear duct clogged /
My left eye broken / Medicate with warm compress / Extract
hardened tears,” is how “Sue Me” reflects the emotional
callousing that litigating familial matters in court can cause
(the song is clearly about the
custody lawsuit Barney filed against Björk
in 2015).

If she’s not making the alien sound accessible anymore in her
music, at least she’s making the accessible sound alien.
Sometimes. She’s referred to Utopia as her “Tinder
album
” (and then explained
in a later interview
that she’s actually too famous to be
on Tinder), but repeatedly she comes off as someone who just
started dating and wants you to know all about what it’s like,
even if you’ve been there for years and the marvels of modern
communication unfurling before Björk’s eyes are, in fact, old
news to you. She details a chain of app rejection on
“Courtship” in a manner that would have only seemed novel if
she were beaming this to the past, before dating apps were
invented. “He turned me down, I then downturned another / Who
then downturned her,” she sings, and she may as well be
reciting a Cuisinart’s instruction booklet. “Isn’t it odd? /
Isn’t it peculiar / These statistics of my mind / Shuffling
your features / Assembling a man / Googling love?” she sings on
the gothic, beatless “Creatures Features.” Not really! Everyone
does it these days! She’s occasionally full-on trite, even,
like at the end of her song about texting- and
file-sharing-based infatuation, “Blissing Me,” when she wonders
aloud, “Did I just fall in love with love?” thereby invoking

a cultural trope
. “Will we stop seeing what unites us / But
only what differs?” she wonders on “Courtship.” Zzzz. “Loss of
love, we all have suffered / How we make up for it defines who
we, who we are,” she declares on “Losss.” Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

One moment Utopia feels obsessively constructed, the
next: half-baked. It’s an album of beauty that sketches love
and music as two sides of the same coin and advocates of the
creation of one’s own paradise… with an update on Björk’s
divorce proceedings and Matthew Barney’s alleged infidelity
sandwiched in via a multi-song suite. She’s either suggesting
that utopia is relative or just sorely lacking the
levelheadedness to edit her own shit these days.

Utopia is mesmerizing and infuriating, a transmission
from a cloistered land from someone who used to visit ours but
now demands that we come to her. Too rarely, in my experience,
is the trip worth it anymore.

And yet, like a fool who’s long been abandoned, I hold out hope
for Björk’s return.

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