Would it surprise you to learn that the new Björk album is full of birds chirping, keyboards gurgling, and the consonant “s” being treated in much the same way a pasta maker treats semolina? Or that the Icelandic icon sings of forests and mountains and souls and “a matriarchal dome”? Or that her latest videos encase her face in rainbow-robot prosthetics, her hair in golden butterflies, her heart in CGI color swirls? Probably not, as this all accords exactly with the overly simple public image of Björk: the SNL fairy, the swan lady, the MoMA exhibit.
However: Maybe it would surprise you to learn there’s a song called “Sue Me,” in which she sings about a court battle over child custody. Perhaps you don’t go to a Björk album expecting to hear her pronounce “MP3.” Or to have her describe visiting a record store, or clubbing in Brooklyn, or using Google.
Björk matters not because she can seem untethered from reality, but rather because she uses the otherworldly to communicate, with frightful intensity, what it is to exist on Earth. Her previous album, 2015’s monumental Vulnicura, journaled her breakup with her long-term partner Matthew Barney over lachrymose strings, epic song lengths, and jagged rhythms. Her new one, Utopia, continues to draw directly from her life, and though the palette is happier, the music has somehow become even stranger and more specific to one person’s brain. More than ever, the listener will have to find their own way in.
Birdsong knits together the album’s 14 tracks, generated both by field recordings and synths that emanate at unusual intervals, creating the effect of walking through a cyborg jungle. There’s also a big emphasis throughout on the classical pastoral: woodwinds, harp, and choral singing. This could easily have be the sound of a gentler, more inviting new sound, but it’s actually not. While Björk has never been slavish to rhythmic, structural, or melodic predictability, Utopia’s songs are particularly uninterested in orienting the listener.
The opener, “Arisen My Senses,” introduces the sonic palette in a series of cresting waves, in which Björk’s multi-tracked voices deliver overlapping, upwards-arching phrases. She has said the music was specifically written to contrast with the tightly wound tunes that, in retrospect, gave Vulnicura its strange accessibility as pop: “It’s almost like an optimist rebellion against the normal narrative melody,” she told Pitchfork.
Beneath these “optimist rebellions” are harsh electronic blasts in the low end—the signature sound of Arca, a Venezuelan producer whose solo albums played at enough volume might register on the Richter scale. Björk brought Arca in to assist on Vulnicura, and for that album his nightmarish approach accentuated the horror of the loss Björk sang about. He plays a yet-larger role on Utopia—perhaps too large of one. Björk is clearly interested in juxtaposing musical lightness and heaviness in order to convey how joy intertwines with pain. But at times Arca’s rumbles push songs from aurally difficult to nearly unlistenable.
Björk nails the Utopia musical blend—flutes, birds, chaos—most aptly on a series of late-album songs including “Losss,” “Tabula Rasa,” and “Saint,” all of which feature bracing vocal performances. “Tabula Rasa” is especially powerful, with the singer emitting high, echoey bleats amid calls to shield daughters from the “fuckups of the fathers.” The motherly feminist thread extends to “Saint,” a semi-comic description of a mythical woman who “attends funerals of strangers” and whose “strongest memory is feeding children with leprosy.” The point, Björk sings, is that this goddess has an analogue in music itself: Songs can be utopia.
The most effective parts of the album lucidly explore this same, somewhat meta theme. Over the delicate harp recital of “Blissing Me,” Björk tells a charming story of “two music nerds” (perhaps she and Arca?) developing a romance—deeply, but platonically. “I just fell in love with a song” Björk says at once point, later asking, “Did I just fall in love with love?”
The link between romance and music also grounds the standout “Features Creatures,” an eerily minimalist—and eerily relatable—duet between Björk and a ghostly choir. Her brain, the song suggests, functions as a computer program that constantly evaluates passersby to see if they resemble her beloved, whether in height, facial hair, or accent. The shock of recognition she describes is like the shock listeners enjoy in those precious moments when, for all its idiosyncrasies, Björk’s world begins to feel like their own.