An arcadia far from dystopic times

The music in Bjork’s ninth album, Utopia, is softer, fluvial and more airy, though often crashing against tough surfaces.
The music in Bjork’s ninth album, Utopia, is softer, fluvial and more airy, though often crashing against tough surfaces.PHOTO: ONE LITTLE INDIAN

Bjork envisions a bird paradise alive with chirps, flutes, shards of electronics and an all-woman vocal accompaniment in Utopia

AVANT POP

UTOPIA

Bjork

One Little Indian

4 stars

Immersed in Bjork's latest album, you'd suddenly recall the sensory gifts of an exhibition held earlier this year at the ArtScience Museum called Human+: The Future Of Our Species.

How apropos, if the Icelandic singer's explorations of the human body, biotechnology and robotics also took their rightful place in that baffling showcase - consider the serene cyborg in her likeness from Chris Cunningham's stunning music video for All Is Full of Love (1999), or her visual-aural evocation of the universe in the 2011 app album Biophilia.

With Utopia, her ninth record, she is contemplating an arcadia far from these terrible, dystopic times: she has envisioned a bird paradise alive with chirps, flutes, shards of electronics and an all-woman vocal accompaniment from Iceland, the Hamrahlid Choir.

Whereas her previous record, 2015's Vulnicura, was a raw documentation of her acrimonious split from American artist Matthew Barney and shot through with jagged beats, here the music is softer, fluvial and more airy, though often crashing against tough surfaces. You can almost touch each surface.

In the near seven-minute dirge Loss, a song she said is a continuation of the themes from Vulnicura and a response to her song Pagan Poetry, from 2001's Vespertine, you are at first lulled by the exquisite combo of harp and flute as she utters the last couplet: "I forgive, the past is bondage/Freedom aphrodisiac."

This is swiftly followed by an eruption of machine-gun, wailing sirens and trundling machinery invoked by beat-meisters, Venezuelan whiz Arca and Texan producer Rabit. It wipes the slate clean.

The agnostic approach towards technology and nature means one should not rely on presumptions and prejudices. The album's first song, Arisen My Senses, opens with the strange, astringent call of the Montezuma oropendola, a New World bird, which sounds as if it's being sucked through a very thin straw. It's odd and startling. It's almost metallic.

The song is a romantic awakening, a riposte to the dark days of Vulnicura. "Every cell in my body/ Lined up for you," she purrs against gentle flecks of strings and squeaky F/X. The melodies and vocals are overlaid like plumage. You just have to get lost to get to the sensual logic of Bjork.

The hybridisation continues in The Gate, a moody, fluttery entrance to the enchanting forest. "My healed chest wound/Transformed into a gate," she sings over a choral melody, woodwinds made to sound like birdsong and an escalation of keys that rise to the ether.

It's not all paradisiacal. The road to sanctuary is paved with heartaches, as Bjork recalls the pain of the custody battle with Barney over their daughter. In Sue Me, she repeats the title over wandering woodwind and clattering percussion.

And so, it is: This "matriarchal dome", a crystalline ecosystem magicked by big heart and curiouser imagination, is a wonder not to be taken for granted. In the last song, Future Forever, buoyed on a synth-organ, she exhorts: "Hold fort for love forever." Take heed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2017, with the headline 'An arcadia far from dystopic times'. Print Edition | Subscribe