Get ready for optimism, birds and flutes
Later this week (November 24), Björk releases her ninth studio album Utopia. Coming off the back of Vulnicura – an album that explored, in devastating and uncompromising terms, the Icelandic musician’s relationship breakdown and subsequent divorce from her ex-husband Matthew Barney – Utopia promises to be a far lighter and more spiritually uplifting record. The album explores the concept of ‘utopia’ and asks where utopia can be found in dark times. “I think I needed to zoom out and find a new manifesto,” she told Dazed in a recent cover story.
With two tracks, “The Gate” and “Blissing Me”, already out, we’ve put together a guide to what’s been in Björk’s head for the past two years she’s been working on the album. Here’s everything you need to know about Utopia.
IT’S BOTH A CONTINUATION OF AND DEPARTURE FROM VULNICURA
While Utopia is tonally far from the bleakness of Vulnicura, there’s still plenty to suggest it occupies the same universe as that album, coming across more like an inversion than a total departure. In particular, there are continued collaborations with Arca (co-producer of both records), Andrew Thomas Huang (the artist who visualised much of Vulnicura and who directed the recent video for Utopia’s “The Gate”), and James Merry (who, besides more general collaborations, designed the headpieces she wore for the albums).
There’s also the language of the ‘chest wound’ that appeared on Vulnicura, with “The Gate” opening with the lyrics, “My healed chest wound / Transformed into a gate / Where I receive love from / Where I give love from.”
IT’S GONNA BE OPTIMISTIC
While making the album, Björk read up extensively about utopias in academia and fiction, from old fables to the science fiction of Octavia E. Butler. “Utopia has gone from everything being monasteries, to feminist islands, to socialism, to ‘Peach Blossom Spring,’” she told the New York Times.
Such a search for utopia is necessary in the political climate of 2017, particularly in response to Trump, who was elected two years into making the album. “Instead of moaning and becoming really angry, we need to actually come up with suggestions of what the world we want to live in, in the future, could be,” she added. “This album is supposed to be like an idea, a suggestion, a proposal of the world we could live in.”
While the album is a response to the wider world, it’s also to do with her personal rediscovery of utopia. “If we’re gonna survive not only my personal drama but also the sort of situation the world is in today, we’ve got to come up with a new plan,” she told Dazed. “If we don’t have the dream, we’re just not gonna change.”
IT’S A MORE DIRECT COLLABORATION WITH ARCA
Arca first worked with Björk on Vulnicura, and he’s back on board as the co-producer of Utopia too. This time around, things were a little different. While Arca came into Vulnicura towards the end of the writing process, here he worked with Björk from the beginning, resulting in a more direct musical collaboration. “It’s the strongest musical relationship I’ve had,” she told Dazed.
“She’s given me advice on anything, (from) live shows, arranging, how to breathe, how to sing, when to bow, when to fight, when to search, when to hold stillness,” Arca told us. “It’s not just advice as a musician, it’s how she unlocks things in others simply by seeing them on a deep level.”
“It’s not just advice as a musician, it’s how she unlocks things in others simply by seeing them on a deep level” – Arca
BJÖRK HAS HINTED AT THIS SOUND BEFORE
One of the more intriguing aspects to Björk and Arca’s working relationship is that Arca was a Björk fan growing up, listening not just to her studio albums but to deep cuts and obscure b-sides too. With Utopia he encouraged her to pursue directions she’d hinted at in the past but never fully embraced, citing tracks like “Batabid” (a synth track from her Vespertine era) and “Ambergris March” (from the Drawing Restraint 9 soundtrack) as precedents for her new sound.
“He knew my back catalogue better than I did… What was different was that me and Alejandro (Arca) were merging,” Björk added to the New York Times. “We felt like we could write 50 albums, because it was so fun… He was mirroring back to me a side of me that I probably would have ignored… We were sending each other a thousand ideas — it was like playing games with someone.”
THERE WILL BE FLUTES
While researching utopias, Björk noticed a recurring story where women would steal flutes from the men, round up their kids, and play them songs somewhere safe from the violence of war. “Playing the flute was their haven and where women escape to find utopia somewhere,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Björk played the flute growing up (you can see the instrument in press photos for the album, as well as in the video for “The Gate”), and for Utopia she recorded a “flute club”, as she told The Guardian – a 12-piece, all-female group of flautists who met at her cabin in Iceland every Friday to rehearse. “My flute side has been dormant for a long time,” she told the New York Times. “I tried to get as many colours out of the flutes as possible.”
The flutes – as well as the brass and choir that appears on the album – were conducted and arranged by Björk, just like her string arrangements on previous records.
“My flute side has been dormant for a long time. I tried to get as many colours out of the flutes as possible” – Björk
THERE WILL BE BIRDS, TOO
Contributing to the eco-utopian theme of the album is the presence of birdsong – something that could be heard all over her recent cover mix for Mixmag. As she told Dazed, some of these are field recordings from her travels, and others sampled from existing records.
Speaking to the New York Times, she tied birdsong into her conception of what utopia might look like. “Everybody’s playing flutes, and everybody’s naked, and there’s all these plants you’ve never seen before and all these birds you’ve never heard before, and orchids, and it has that feeling of pioneering into a new world.”