There’s no denying Bjork is Iceland’s undisputed queen of music. She’s difficult to define but frequently comforting and familiar, shining like an incandescent light bulb in the back of a dark room. Unfortunately, Utopia struggles to continue with Bjork’s long-standing success.
Kicking off her career with Icelandic alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, Bjork outgrew the group and started to hit her artistic stride with her second solo album, Debut. Since that 1993 LP, Bjork crafted an amazing streak of albums that never sound like any of their predecessors. Her fantastic run with Post, Homogenic and Vespertine from 1995 to 2001 is one of the most impressive three-album streaks of all time with three distinct sounds and experiences. Sixteen years later, Bjork’s name still carries weight. With the release of her newest album, Utopia, Bjork flashes her potential, but tempts fate by trending too close to previous effort Vulnicura.
What made Vulnicura so impressive was its success with a type of music Bjork hadn’t delved into before — it showed that she still has a lot left in the tank. In contrast, Utopia falls in line with its predecessor, widening its focus from just one single relationship to the world as a whole. Although this thematic ambition is admirable, the instrumentation of Utopia is just too similar to the latter half of Vulnicura to be considered distinct in Bjork’s discography.
This stumbling point is likely due to collaboration with Arca, a Venezuelan art/glitch hop producer. Whereas Vulnicura featured Arca in tasteful moments, Utopia is riddled with his presence. Arca’s production talents are welcome experimentation on a few tracks and even transform a couple from run-of-the-mill to impressive. But more often than not, Arca’s disjointed beats feel like unnecessary accoutrement to what could have been a simplistic and sparse listen.
Though the jittery production of this album becomes redundant, Bjork’s lyrics usually hit home. There’s a bit of pretension built into tracks such as “Saint,” a song where Bjork conjures up a magical, love-filled savior for the world, but anyone who’s listened to Bjork knows to expect these strange highbrow moments. More often than not, Bjork’s lyrics evolve with time and further examination. That’s the case on “Blissing Me,” which weaves a fantastic tale of two music fans falling in love by swapping records, making it the lyrical highlight of the record.
Adding in orchestral instrumentation when necessary, Utopia uses the whimsical nature of the flute as a key component of several tracks. “Body Memory” displays exactly why many consider Bjork to be one of the premiere songwriters of her time — its compositions compete with any Bjork song of the past. Additionally, “Arisen My Senses” is a complex and layered track, encapsulating everything fans could want from the artist. Placing the flute front-and-center in several songs’ mixes is a good choice, but in other songs it’s often obscured with Arca’s unnecessary industrial beats.
By muddying up the production of Utopia, Bjork’s achievements get covered up far too often with vague, confusing drums. In this case, it’s a decent portion of the second half of this album, specifically tracks 11 through 13.
For Bjork standards, this album runs far too long and becomes repetitive with multiple listens, making a disappointment to some and a rare failure to others. However, in comparison to the field of art pop, it’s certainly above average, with exciting risks and some majestic moments. Hopefully Bjork finds a new groove and eliminates the unnecessarily confusing beats in the future. For now, she’s lucky to have such a dedicated bunch of fans.