Over the course of her career, Björk has sung about matters as complex as nature, technology and sexuality, but when we last heard her, she was plumbing the depths of another concept as universal as it is confounding: heartbreak. Three years ago, Björk released “Vulnicura,” an album written and recorded following the dissolution of her long-term relationship with artist Matthew Barney. Arguably Björk’s best album in over a decade, it was certainly her most relatable; she’s a visionary who doesn’t record albums so much as construct worlds, but in the face of emotional devastation, Björk becomes human, one of us. Her pain was laid so bare across the album that she ultimately cut its tour short. It hurt too much to sing those songs night after night.
So it’s a relief for me to write that Björk’s been flirting again, and is following up her “complete heartbreak album” with what she adorably calls her “Tinder album.” (I for one would be flabbergasted if I found that Björk Guðmundsdóttir had swiped right on me.) This change in mood is accompanied by a change in sound; where the use of strings on “Vulnicura” felt claustrophobic, creating an atmosphere fraught with sadness, “Utopia” is defined by the sounds of flutes and harps, and even the calls of birds. Needless to say, this is a lighter, airier record than its predecessor, even with the return of co-producer Alejandro Ghersi (better known as Arca, a remarkable musician in his own right). It’s even playful at times, in the same way that those first feelings of falling in love are playful. Of the 14 tracks on “Utopia,” all but a few of them are love songs.
The first we heard of this album suggested that Björk was beginning to move on from her heartbreak. On lead single “The Gate,” Björk sang “My healed chest wound/Transformed into a gate” from which she could give and receive love again. “The Gate” is disarming in its softness, to the point that it’s practically ambient for the first half, but don’t mistake its quietude for inertia; deep beats and crescendos of flute radiate from the center of the track, catching the listener off guard. It’s a quietly volcanic ballad in the vein of classics like “Hyperballad” and “Bachelorette,” as opposed to the unabashed prettiness of the follow-up single, “Blissing Me.” On that track, Björk sings over a soothing harp accompaniment about the pleasures of geeking out about music and falling in love in the process: “Sending each other mp3s/Falling in love to a song.” If people still made mixtapes for their crushes, “Blissing Me” would be a no-brainer.
The tracks largely fall into one of two categories: dynamic compositions like “The Gate,” or moments of tranquility such as “Blissing Me.” The lyrics also tend to match the music, with the more complex tracks dealing more with the hazards of love. This is most apparent in the album’s middle section, starting with the 10-minute monolith “Body Memory.” (“Vulnicura” had its own 10-minute centerpiece, which seemed to chronicle the dissolution of Björk’s relationship in real-time.) Better still is the one-two punch of “Courtship” and “Losss” (yes, spelled with three s’s), which respectively detail the pursuit of love and its … well, loss. But it’s the track that follows that’s the most telling. Björk spits acid on “Sue Me” even as her own skin tears and bleeds, savaging Barney in no uncertain terms: “We had it all in our hands/He just pulled us through the wringer/Narcissist!” Björk is no rapper, but “Sue Me” is essentially a diss track, a brutal reminder that the pain Björk transcribed so vividly on “Vulnicura” lives on beyond that record.
Unfortunately, “Utopia” is a front-loaded record, and in its final stretch of songs it starts to repeat itself. “Tabula Rasa,” like “Sue Me,” contains some of Björk’s most explicitly feminist lyrics on the album; both tracks are as much about the patriarchy and toxic masculinity as they are about Barney. Musically, however, “Tabula Rasa” is a practically beat-less number that takes nearly five minutes to go nowhere in particular. Ditto for “Saint,” which has a more compelling instrumental but vaguer lyrics. At 72 minutes, “Utopia” is the first of Björk’s albums to run for over an hour, but it arguably would be a stronger album if this weren’t the case.
Perhaps it’s ungracious to complain about too much of a good thing when Björk is the only person making music like this, and has been at it for nearly a quarter-century. And while breakup albums undoubtedly make for career-defining works – Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours,” Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” – we don’t want our favorite musicians to stay heartbroken forever. Björk went to that wretched place on “Vulnicura,” and it’s reassuring to hear that so soon afterward, she’s once again found herself in a romantic world that’s meant to be shared. On “Utopia,” Björk is once again full of love.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.