Sometimes high art slots in nicely into the mainstream. Pop Art may have unsettled people on its initial debut, but now it’s on a fridge magnet or T-Shirt. Where Eighties musical icons Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen clearly fitted into a understandable premise, the next decade differed: The outsider was invited in, from the emergence of grunge via Nirvana, to the low-fi funk of Beck. But what if you wanted fun music you only just about understood?
In 1993, fresh from indie success with The SugarCubes, Icelandic singer Björk sprung unexpectedly into the dance scene, taking her unique vocal stylings and allowing them to be immersed into the club culture. Hard beats and throbbing synths became the backdrop to her view of the world, sexuality, dreams and anything Björk wanted to share. Equally surprising was her 1995 cover of Betty Hutton’s “It’s So Quiet”, which – aside from her early dance-flavoured hits – she is mainly associated with. That, and her experimental music videos whose grand and surreal nature counters with her down-to-earth girl next door personality (that’s assuming, of course, you live in Iceland).
Utopia is Björk’s tenth solo album since her literal Debut, and as any true artist, she does not produce her work in the hope of getting a hit, or even to please her many fans – but merely to create what she feels like at the time. The likelihood of what an artist produces matching what the people want at the time is pretty much in the lap of the gods; release a bland cover album full of standards at Christmas and with few exceptions, you will be guaranteed high sales. To be honest, I expect someone in marketing wish she had done this, as Utopia is very much not an album of hits. It’s once again a mix of obscure but pleasant noises, with Björk somewhere in the mix.
First track “Arisen My Senses” sums up the album as a whole: Björk’s vocals gliding over electronic hums and euphoric highs, and sudden jabs of key changes and beat jumps, and it stays like this for most of the album.
The delicate plucking harps and ambient criss-crossing rhythms of “Blissing Me”, together with her angelic phrasing, makes up for the lack of direction in the songwriting, although the song doesn’t lack heart; indeed, it feels extremely personal. Moments of “Sue Me” sound like we about to return to Björk’s dance roots, but again it’s a collision of crashing and squeaking, which by this stage- roughly halfway – is beginning to become monotonous. (I feel like such a philistine waiting for something I can sing along to!)
The pleasant instrumental of “Paradisa” follows, preparing us for some strange beeping, reminiscent of the theme tune to Stranger Things – and again we are finding no verses or choruses, instead we have Björk’s strong voice fighting to be heard over the dominance of electronics. “Saint” contrasts this with flutes and bird song with sharp – at times overlapping – harmonies that build and build into distant mechanical sounds, pulling parallel to our dependence of technology that can damage nature. The album closes with “Future Forever” which has Björk trill and emoting beautifully over delicate metal echoes, giving the impression of being submerged in a swimming pool, listening to heavy traffic passing by.
Only “Features Creatures” breaks out of the routine of musical chaos, and in this one, over a haunting ghost-like wail, Björk could be commenting on slow moving zombies. Or maybe It’s about politics, or sex; like all good art, it’s not obvious.
The album has the feel of an opera; dramatic instrumentation and human voices creating an ambience, rather than something you will be whistling as you leave the performance. The album’s sameness throughout gives it the feel of an meditation recording, mashed with background noise at an art Installation. The problem is that there is very little variation in the album – mostly it involves Björk singing over herself all at once – and its repetitive nature makes it tricky to distinguish one track from another. However, it would be a perfect album to accompany a day at a spa treatment, going from one room to another, experiencing saunas and steam rooms that at first seem just like the same overpowering heat again and again, but instead have subtle differences.
Utopia means a perfect place, and maybe this album is where Björk is right now. Other people’s unique enjoyment doesn’t always translate, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. This album didn’t immediately grab me like Debut or Post, but that was more that 20 years ago and Björk has always been an artist rather than a pop star. Although I feel this album may be destined to be forgotten, due its lack of recognisable tunes, it may suit that time of night and day where you just want to get away from it all and take your senses somewhere calm and chaotic.
Utopia is available now from Amazon.co.uk and other retailers from One Little Indian Records.