Monday, November 27, 2017

album review: 'utopia' by bjork

So I've talked about 'breakup albums' before in this series, many of which stand as some of the most evocative and emotional records that an artist can make, delving into a relationship's dissolution in real time and exploring the often complex situation to mine some sort of deeper meaning or closure. But what gets talked about a lot less is what comes after, when the emotions behind the breakup are settled, and while the memory might linger, there are new paths and opportunities going forward. Records that take this sort of direct sequel approach are much rarer, mostly because the emotional dynamic is actually trickier: the breakup provides context for the journey of the album's protagonist, but it can't overshadow the primary emotions running through it, and that's a tough balance to walk, both in lyrics and performance.

Enter Bjork, one of the most boundary-pushing artists in the past thirty years and easily one of the most challenging - and while I've talked about how it took me a while to come around on her work, the past two years since I reviewed Vulnicura has only deepened my affection for her records and her artistic process. And while I was a tad annoyed that her only creative partner on this project Utopia was Arca - an electronic producer who with every project and collaboration continues to run out his clock in my books - I was very intrigued by where Bjork wanted to take this. For one, she described this record as her 'tinder record', where she was looking to find that new love and passion, but she was also looking to explore and dissect utopian ideals, the Paradisio to Vulnicura's Inferno. Now I did have some reservations - not only was this her longest record at over an hour, utopian ideas tend to be tough to crack or make palatable to our quasi-dystopian world... but on the other hand, Bjork is a genius, her interviews before the record showed she was plenty aware and capable of the difficult task ahead of her, and considering the sonic palette was reportedly calling back to Vespertine - Bjork's second best record after Post - I was really excited for this. So, what did I find in Utopia?

I'm of a few minds on this record. On the one hand, standing as a natural continuation from Vulnicura that draws upon a lighter, more vibrant tone and shows perhaps the best counterbalance for Arca that he's ever had, Utopia is a beautiful, frequently affecting listen. But on the other hand, the more listens I gave it the more I found myself wishing that there was more that really grabbed me here on a record that runs long and may not have enough of the variety or stunning melodies that made its predecessor so affecting. And yes, part of it will circle around the utopian themes and symbolism, because I know some explanation is going to be demanded there.

But let's start with the compositions and production - and really, at this point in her career you're either on board with Bjork's fascinatingly rich vocal tone, full of trilled syllables, stunning expressiveness, and gorgeous multi-tracking, or you're not - and since I came around to her voice, there's a lot about her charisma and delivery I find plenty potent here, especially given the choral effects she utilizes to gorgeous effect, particularly that male choir on the behemoth of a song 'Body Memory'. And while I'm inclined to give Arca some credit for that - the brittle rumbles and melodic instability that have always been his hallmark definitely come through here, and he definitely gives these mixes enough space to breathe - the truth is that it's Bjork who is the reason why these compositions work, providing the real underlying compositional structure and control for her blur of samples and delicate arrangements. And that'll inevitably attract the most attention, because while the Vespertine comparison holds in the usage of strings and harp on songs like 'Body Memory' and 'Tabula Rasa' and 'Blissing Me', the much more prominent instruments are woodwinds, flutes from the high trilling notes of 'Courtship' and 'Losss' to fuller, breathier tones to elements that are intended to accent the mix but do so in a subtly brilliant fashion, all amidst a cloud of bird song that blurs the organic and technical in a way that I haven't heard since I reviewed the album from Visible Cloaks called Reassemblage earlier this year. 'Losss' in particular stands out as one of the most pronounced moments of contrast: a crushing industrial rumble of a beat against a whirling melodic core with co-production from Rabit emphasizing an groove element Arca rarely uses but really should more often! 

Of course, what this also means is that we get some choppy, pitch-shifted vocal samples filling in for melodies on songs like 'Sue Me' and 'Claimstaker' and while neither is bad, they don't nearly fit in with the atmosphere in the same way, which may have been the point for the former but definitely not the latter, or excusing how Bjork's voice can top out on parts of 'Features Creatures'. But the larger issue is that for striking as the melodies were on Vulnicura, unorthodox but pulling from wells of deeper aching pain, the trembling instability on several of these tunes don't quite obscure that the melodic compositions don't really have the same evocative moments of climax, at least not consistently. Yes, you get songs like 'Blissing Me' and 'Losss' and especially 'Saint' that do hit that swell and climax, but as a whole there's a part of me that feels the flute arrangements can feel a tad uniform, blurring together from song to song, which can become a serious problem when this record already runs over an hour, with extended outros or languid digressions that don't really add up to more. The best is easily the more contemplative, misty touches at the end of 'Courtship', but even then, when you tack on a pretty but inessential interlude called 'Paradisia', you start feeling the ideas are getting stretched thin, especially when you realize the moments where Bjork is sampling herself.

But before we get into those ideas, I need to lay down some context about utopian narratives - and look, for the most part I just don't care for them, for two main reasons. One, it can deflate tension: if you're looking to find a sense of drama to drive a compelling narrative, immersion in the utopian ideal can feel a tad listless and deflating, especially when at #2, nobody's utopia is precisely the same, and to suggest that your version of paradise is inherently superior to another's can have an authoritarian twinge, especially if it involves pushing people away who might corrupt or taint it. Now to be clear, Bjork is very much aware of both of these criticisms, and I like the subtext evidenced on early songs of this record in confronting new loves. It's clear she wants to elevate them to meaning so much more, but she doesn't want to do it at the expense of her partner, and thus when this record embraces a quieter sense of transcendence in swapping music and bonding over art as a sign of love, it's a potent metaphor - for a music nerd like her, it's a pure form of love. But she's also acutely aware of her history, the ex in the picture for which some of the pain still lingers as she tries to move forward with no desensitization in an era of Tinder, with the freedom to experience those emotions openly being her aphrodisiac... And yet that doesn't quite happen, because then the specter of that ex enters the picture beyond the shadowy memory of 'Features Creatures' and the utopian deconstruction gets shoved to the side on 'Sue Me', in favor of an ugly argument surrounding custody of her teenage daughter, complete with broad slams against patriarchal gender politics that may have been referenced on 'Body Memory' as kafka-esque and pointless in comparison with her techno-naturalistic utopia, but feel lacking in that deeper weight here and ring as resoundingly bitter, which is an awkward fit even against that production. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against the feminist undercurrent - it works wonderfully on 'Saint' in the framing of music - but this pivot feels thuddingly stiff, blunt but lacking the inclusivity of the subtext that she tried to interweave into her musical utopia. It's almost ironic, where in dissecting utopias of art and love in order to build a better one, this record skids into the same territory criticized by its subtext, all with the best of intentions - and yet it doesn't happen intentionally, which can't help but undercut the nuance that colors 'Tabula Rasa' and the closer 'Future Forever', both songs with strong text but not quite self-aware enough to pay off the subtext, and that does get distracting.

But overall, I do like this record. I don't love it - it's overlong and flabby at points, the thematic deconstruction doesn't go quite far enough to truly explore a utopian framework, even if there are points where it definitely gets damn closer, and I'll admit that even if it did, I'm not really a fan of utopian art as a whole - the humanistic confrontation and humility in the face of transcendence on Perfume Genius' No Shape hits way harder for me. But still, frequently gorgeous, Bjork is one hell of a performer and easily the best composer and producer to keep Arca in line, and there are some truly stunning moments, which means I'm giving this a strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. No, it doesn't cut as hard as Vulnicura, but Bjork is once again at the cutting edge, and that's always a risky proposition - and on that basis alone for a complex and challenging listen, you'll definitely want to check this out.

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