When last we left Björk on Vulnicura, which she had to release ahead of schedule back in 2015 due to one of many leaks from that year, she was still coping with a fresh breakup from San Francisco-born multimedia artist Matthew Barney. And yes, the passage of two years still constitutes “freshness” in the breakup realm. It’s apparently the amount of time it took Björk to process the grief, manifested to its fullest extent on this eighth studio album. Released in January, always a dark time, the record explored the before and after sentiments of their schism. As she put it at the time, “I guess I found in my lap one year into writing it a complete heartbreak album. I was kinda surprised how thoroughly I had documented this in pretty much accurate emotional chronology… like three songs before a break up and three after… So the anthropologist in me sneaked in and I decided to share them as such. First I was worried it would be too self-indulgent but then I felt it might make it even more universal and hopefully the songs could be a help, a crutch to others and prove how biological this process is.”
What’s less biological for some, however, is the moving on and starting over part. This is where the declaration of Utopia being her “Tinder album” comes in. And though an intro track with a title like “Arisen My Senses” might lead one to believe this might have been a semi-return to her more danceable beats of the 90s and even the early 00s, Utopia is still very much a record of slow jams and extended reflections. Of the theme, Björk remarked, “This is like my Tinder album. It’s about that search–and about being in love. Spending time with a person you enjoy on every level is obviously utopia, you know? I mean, it’s real. It’s when the dream becomes real.” Not wanting to be too candid, Björk concluded for good coy measure, “I set myself up with the last album being a heartbreak album, so everyone’s gonna be like, ‘Are you married?’ with this one. But… it’s too fragile still. I think, if I could, I’d just say this is my dating album. Let’s just leave it there.” And maybe that fragility is what makes Utopia sound like a mere continuation of Vulnicura.
This time armed with a heart-shaped labia on her head instead of a normal-shaped one on her chest for the album cover, Utopia is intended to announce that Björk has healed, comparing the magicality of a first kiss to the reawakening of those previously dulled senses as she wails, “Every cell in my body lined up for you/Legs a little open once again” on “Arisen My Senses.” With a voice overly controlled yet on the verge of expressing a breakdown, “Blissing Me” elucidates how wet Björk gets for a fellow music connoisseur (that means dweebo). Sharing their favorite songs long distance, the separation from this mystery man leaves Björk’s longing to have “formed its own skeleton/bridging the gap between singletons.” It’s real freaky deaky.
“The Gate” makes immediate reference to Vulnicura‘s album cover as Björk extends every word by slowly announcing, “My healed chest wound transformed into a gate/Where I receive love from, where I give love from.” Its cautiousness seems deliberate, as though she’s still not quite sure she wants to openly admit, “I care for you,” as a result of being so badly burned the last time. The title track follows, with the most overt use of ambient sounds, the kind you picture to occur near some mythical body of water where a satyr plays his flute for a group of nymphs. In it, Björk discusses a need to purify toxicity, which obviously means she’s still throwing shade at her ex for fucking her up.
Never one to shy away from the ten-minute track these days, “Body Memory” was written as the foil to Vulnicura‘s “Black Lake,” objectively the most depressing song on said album. And though you wouldn’t know it from the moody vocals, Björk does let her freak flag fly with contentment on this song as she seems to conjure the mojo of ancestors past in saying, “My sexual DNA/X-rays of my Kama Sutras summons different bodies/Compares spines and buttocks/And back of necks.” We’ve all had sexual flashbacks such as these, haven’t we? Perhaps worse even than LSD ones.
The most relatable song on Utopia, “Features Creatures,” explores the sentiment we never like to admit to ourselves: that we’d date someone who looked like our ex in a heartbeat just to put a Band-Aid on the pain, to quell that latent longing that never seems to go away. Just look at what Nero did after killing the love of his life, Poppaea Sabina: he castrated a boy named Sporus who strongly resembled her and then made him his wife. So sure, we all totally get it when Björk shares, “When I hear someone with same accent as yours/Asking directions with the same beard as yours/I literally think I am five minutes away from love.”
To add to the irony of Utopia being an “upbeat” offering, “Courtship” is the most uptempo song while providing the most disheartening tale to go with it. Detailing the ways in which men and women seem so easily to go through one another these days (it’s the closest she gets to referencing app life), our Icelandic phoenix fears, like we all do, “the paralyzing juice of rejection” after trying and failing at love–or the possibility of it–so many times.
The snake-sounding in Björk-speak “Losss,” which even she herself had to admit as having the aural motif of “girl goth music,” doesn’t do much to elevate the sonic mood. But again, the message of the words is positive, with Björk warning those who have suffered the loss of love, “How we make up for it defines who we are…It defines us, how we overcome it.”
The most anti-love moment of Utopia comes on “Sue Me,” with Björk once again unable to resist making a dig at Barney, bluntly appraising him as “narcissistic” with the final word of the song once she’s finished making it known that he can sue her all she wants and she’ll never give up her custody rights to their daughter. If anything, it’s a lesson in not having kids if you plan to break up.
Thematically and auditorily, “Tabula Rasa” stands out for being Björk’s apology to the subsequent generation stuck with the mistakes and errors of those in control now, wishing for them to have nothing more than a tabula rasa–or clean slate. But the concept, of course, can also apply to starting a new relationship. The bifurcation of subjects–courtship and nature, both ultimately intertwined–is most evident on “Claimstaker,” wherein Björk walks through a new land to stake a claim. Whether that land is the utopia she refers to in her album’s title or the land of a more worthwhile suitor’s body depends upon the listeners predilections.
Nature-loving sound effects increasingly pervade on “Paradisia,” serving as the ambient transition to “Saint,” which pays tribute to Björk’s lifelong and truest love: music. Personifying the medium as a saint, Björk likens “her” (because all good things are usually a woman) to a Mother Teresa figure who “reaches out to orphans and refugees/Embraces them with thermal blankets/Her favorite childhood moments/Were at a hospital for the disabled.” In any case, Lord knows music never cheated on you with someone younger.
The final and undeniably uplifting (even through the morose and slowed down lilt) “Future Forever” is another piece from Utopia that is applicable to life on a dual level. Instructing her listeners that they must realize “your past is on loop turn it off/See this possible future and be in it,” Björk’s mantra is, like “Tabula Rasa,” germane to a future we’re collectively afraid of due to certain politically tumultuous times, as well as one in which we can forget the pain wrought upon us by former lovers. Because no constructive piece of art can have merely one meaning.
While, to be sure, there’s a far greater amount of “happiness” to be found on this record, what with the ambient nature sounds and packing in of flutes (for more on Björk’s relationship to flutes, see her appropriately bizarre interview with herself in W Magazine), these elements were also present on Vulnicura. Well, wait. There’s definitely more flutes on this.
And yet, regardless of the lyrical divergence from Vulnicura, Utopia remains often heart-crushing rather than invigorating if you’re not totally focused on what she’s saying. Definitely do not listen to it before going out on a Tinder date.