“And just that kiss/was all there is,” Björk sings at the start of “Arisen My Senses,” the opening track on her new album, “Utopia.” When the song follows that line by bursting into a luxurious bloom of harps, accented with ticking electronic beats and anchored by that iconic voice, you’re left with no choice but to let the sheer jubilance of the moment sweep you off your feet. Having exorcised the pain of divorce on 2015’s “Vulnicura,” Björk wastes no time rededicating herself to the pursuit of rapture.
What does the perfect world Björk imagines on “Utopia” look like? For starters, it’s a place where time moves slowly; at 71 ½ minutes, this is her longest album yet, songs unfolding gradually with little regard for conventional pop structure. The liberal use of sampled bird song, along with the flute and harp-heavy arrangements, evoke a peaceful, natural beauty, though the contrast between these more pastoral sounds and cold, fidgety beats adds a certain tension to the mix. Perhaps most significantly, Björk envisions a society centered on the contributions of women, a philosophy she embodies in both her actions (assembling a 12-woman flute ensemble for the album) and words (“break the chain of the [expletive] of the fathers/for us women to rise and not just take it lying down”).
Björk co-produced all but one of the album’s tracks with cutting-edge electronic producer Arca, who in recent years has worked with everyone from FKA twigs to Kanye West. The two also collaborated on “Vulnicura,” and Björk has spoken rapturously about their artistic kinship. In this context, one hears in “Utopia” the sound of two brilliant musicians, their minds overflowing with ideas, pushing each other to create something entirely unique. Make no mistake, though: This is a Björk album through and through, and no matter how significant the contributions of her collaborators, they are ultimately subordinate to her grand vision.
“Utopia” is both resolutely avant-garde and absolutely beautiful, a combination those who associate experimental music with dissonance and ugliness will find utterly paradoxical. Yet Björk has always delighted in showing us how two seemingly antithetical concepts (nature and technology, love and independence) can not only coexist, but bring out the best in each other. Whether you take it as an instruction manual for a better society, a first-person account of the journey from heartbreak to joy, or simply as a cohesive musical statement, “Utopia” is a triumph on all counts.Terence Cawley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley