Best Pop Recording of 2017: Björk – Utopia

Utopia

Björk

One Little Indian

 

Björk’s latest album is her longest (clocking in at 72 minutes) and her most daring yet. On past recordings, cadres of female musicians with fierce chops held sway – employing French horns and strings. This time out, a dozen Icelandic flutists are the ensemble of choice. Alongside them is the electronic musician Arca, in an enhanced role as collaborator rather than appearing, as he did previously, once the songs had already been written. These performers are augmented by additional classical musicians and singers, making for a heady mix of timbres.

 

Where Vulnicura was about personal devastation – Björk’s breakup with her then-partner artist Matthew Barney, Utopia is about the returning of equilibrium, healing, happiness, and even romance. Thus, these two efforts demonstrate both sides of personal vulnerability; the musical differences are stark. Vulnicura’s “Black Lake” is a dark meditation of despair, whereas Utopia’s “Arisen My Senses” contains sensuous melodic lines and an arrangement replete with bird-calls and flutes. The songs on Utopia are intricately designed, containing beautiful variegated textures crafted with tremendous artistry. But the music displays lightness of touch too; indeed, it often floats. Björk’s voice retains a formidable range, both in terms of compass and of the myriad demeanors she flexibly coaxes from it.

 

Much has been made about Utopia’s ornate melodies and lack of rhythmic propulsion in the press; I would suggest too much. “The Gate” may be an extended track, but it has one of the most soaring, viscerally moving tunes in Björk’s catalog. Likewise, a noteworthy example where propulsive beats play a role is the fascinating “Courtship,” in which Arca puts skittering percussion alongside the flute choir and then juxtaposed against it. In the midst of this mix of sounds, Björk’s voice sits mid-register and the lyrics venture into a narrative “storytelling” mode.

 

Many stories are told in the course of Utopia. Often, they mirror the vocalist’s own experience of reentering the world of dating and relationships. That Björk at times approaches the idea of love with trepidation and at others with jubilation makes her willingness to share lyrics based on autobiography all the more touching.

 

In a year filled with revelations of abuse and betrayal, Utopia reminds us that just around the corner from desolation can be restoration and healing; one hopes many will take solace from the album’s message. I do, and In my opinion, it is the best pop recording of 2017.

 

 

 

Arca – “Saunter” (SoundCloud)

Arca

Arca’s S/T third LP, was released this past week on XL. Reincorporating more vocals this time out, he combines the song-based compositions of his earlier work with his more recent electronica experiments. Below is an embed of album track “Saunter;” it’s also available on a 12″ vinyl EP from the label.

Vulnicura Live

Björk

Vulnicura Live

One Little Indian CD

 

Björk’s most recent studio album has already received two releases: Vulnicura and the “unplugged version” Vulnicura Strings. Each has their virtues, but Vulnicura Live brings the best aspects of both, darkly hued electronica and sensuous strings respectively, together with singularly emotive performances by the singer. Thus, one could make a case that Live is even more appealing than the studio albums. It outlines her recent breakup and recovery from it with an on the surface display of feelings that many other singers could learn from — if they dared to be as vulnerable as Björk.

 

On the electronics side, Björk receives aid from Arca and Haxan Cloak. The textures that they weave are a pensive counterweight to the sonorous strings, allowing them to be underpinned with an anguished mixture of beats and synthetic textures just as appealing as they are at times distressing. The strings, supplied by members of Alarm Will Sound and New Heritage Orchestra, keen with abandon when called upon as an amplification of the singer’s grief. Correspondingly, they bring warmth to the proceedings’ latter half, in which Björk begins to share songs of resilience and recovery.

 

So, is this the breakup album you’d recommend to a friend on the outs with their ex? That all depends on their own proclivities – are they up for the ride? Björk presents grief and resiliency in equal measure and finds her own way to catharsis by Live’s conclusion. My take? It’s an object lesson that will likely help empower many in the throes of distress. That, in addition to its many musical merits, makes Live one of Björk’s most vital offerings to date.

 

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