Björk's Utopia and the concept of healing in modern music
Out of the gate, 2022 has been a very bountiful year for mainstream music. The Weeknd kicked it off with his fifth studio album Dawn FM, a rose-tinted lookback on a fucked up life over ‘80s-inpsired darkwave and Japanese city pop inspired production. Throughout this album, it is clear that the suppressed sadness overshadowed by the blinding lights of After Hours is back in a more overt state. On “Save Your Tears”, Abel was deeply pained and held back his emotions. By the comparable “Less Than Zero” from Dawn FM, he is bawling his eyes out in therapy. Still, he dances through the pain on the opening “Gasoline”. This theme of keeping yourself busy seems like the entire thrust of FKA twigs’ newest release, CARPISONGS. While 2019’s MAGDALENE saw her living through a harrowing breakup coupled with medical issues, her newest effort sees her putting increased focus on having fun while still recovering. “Tears in the club/’Cause your loves got me fucked up” she cries on the chorus, and on the opening verse “I wanna get out of my hips/My thighs.” It’s so fitting that her and The Weeknd meet in this way, two broken hearts fitting together as one over a haunting Arca sample. The following “oh my love” sees her weaknesses, fragility and devotion come into play, followed by some consolation from a friend.
Earl Sweatshirt’s Sick! sees him not just grieving his father, but also anyone affected by Coronavirus. The way he fully relinquishes production duties, for the first time in his entire career, feels like finally going through a therapy session for the first time since childhood. Rather than stay in his head and have these increasingly rotting thoughts about morality and past trauma, he opens the floor up and suddenly, we can make out what he’s saying. “Titanic” is perhaps his most commercially viable song ever, the type of music I’d send to my friends who listen to Lil Baby to try and convert them. He is toying with Memphis hip-hop and Alchemist scoring while standing up tall, trying his damndest to be ok. The song “Tabula Rasa” or “clean slate”, with Armand Hammer embodies that, too. While Armand Hammer raps about “snot bubbles” and chicken grease, the production is pure and classy. It’s really just such serendipity that I decided to listen to Björk’s Utopia this week, because it also has a song entitled “Tabula Rasa”. Not only that, but it is also a post-panic healing album.
While each of these artists is dealing with different levels of trauma from different times in their life, there is this universal washing of hands that occurs in all of their music. After Hours and Post are similar hit-fests that get vaguely thematic, while MAGDALENE and Vulcinura are raw recollections of recent relationships (you like the alliteration?) For fucks sake, Sick! and Utopia both have bird sounds! That last one was a riff, but you get my point. Björk has always been very transparent and expressive in her art, always letting the listener know exactly where she is in life without spelling it out for them. Utopia, her most recent effort from 2017, saw her in her “Tinder” era, or so the media called it. I saw it as a confusing avant garde mess produced by an artist I didn’t like, Arca, when it first came out. I haven’t always been such a stan of either of their music, despite recently taking both the red Björk pill and blue Arca pill at the same time, landing me on this very album. Now is the perfect time to give my assessment of it, and for the real heads, I am also in my Tinder era, my third one though.
In an interview with Nowness, Björk is speaking openly, but behind a James Merry designed mask. Giving increased context to her single “The Gate” next to it’s video director Nowness, she says “The wound of heartbreak…your chest kind of implodes, when that oval shape restores, it becomes a gate. And you may discover even more that it was there all along. It’s like a gate, when you’re next to people you love, you share energy.” The video shows two avatars, one resembling Björk and the other a generic male, shooting balls of energy back and forth between each other. The production goes from day to night, with chirping birds in the sunshine transforming to crickets and sci-fi Arca synth work. “Split into many parts, splitting light beams into prisms, that will reunite/If you care me, care for me” she belts out into the void, hoping someone will put the pieces back for her. Her light is contingent on reciprocating love, and thus, in order to shine, she needs to seek it out. With her husband Matthew Barney suing her for custody of their children, Björk needed healing then more than ever. In the same way she snapped on that reporter in the ‘90s after going through too much, she lobs bombs at Barney on “Sue Me” and “Tabula Rasa”. On the former, Arca equips Björk with this harsh industrial monstrosity that is an auditory plasma rifle. It’s skittering and pulsating with energy as she prods him “Sue me!/Sue me!/Sue me!” She disses his entire lineage, “He took it from his father/Who took it from his father…Let’s break this cycle”. She is more emotionally raw and contemptuous than ever before, even on “Army of Me” she hid the slight at her family member in a catchy hook.
She is more specific than ever before on this one, she definitely reminds me of Kanye West in that way as well, a man who just wrote his own Vulnicura. When DONDA 2 arrives, I’m sure it will more closely resemble Utopia. Just look at his recent track “Eazy” where he raps “God saved me from the crash/Just so that I could beat Pete Davidson’s ass.” For those of you living under a rock, Pete Davidson seduced Kim Kardashian on the set of SNL and now they’re dating. I bet you any amount of money that his follow up with be as sexual and concretely emotional as Utopia, Björk predicted everything I’m telling you. Her lifelong purpose of combining nature with “techno” results in a map for all of human existence, a concept which she seems to really achieve on this album. She finds nirvana here, with the help of VR, more specifically her own project Björk Digital. SHE EVEN PREDICTED THE METAVERSE WHAT THE FUCK. UTOPIA IS THE METAVERSE. All the emotions are accented with talk of MP3s, Googling and texting as on “Blissing Me”, even the birds sound like the are put there by coding. Arca is the queen of combining stringed instrumentation with this Matrix-style electronic landscape, so the ideas here come together so well.
With the help of Arca she also gets deeply experimental, people weren’t joking when they said this album is all about flutes and bird sounds. Tracks like “Saint” feature chirping introductions, while others like “Paradisa” are literally just that and nothing else. By far one of Björk’s most filmic releases, Utopia is led so much by symphonic instrumentation, synth scoring from Arca, sound effects and thematic coupling of songs. As I mentioned before, there is a whole section about her divorce, while the opening tracks are all about finding new love and escape. The title lands in this suite, with lyrics like “Purify, purify, purify, purify toxicity” directly addressing the breakup. The 10-minute long “Body Memory” is a purposeful sister song to “Black Lake” from the last record. It is about breaking free from one’s fate as a neglected housewife. She suddenly finds herself outside of her home, exploring a foreign environment, but as she says “Then body memory kicks in.” While the first half of the record finds her grappling with a literal wolverine that is a stand-in for destiny, the second half is more open and sexual. “I trust the unknown,” she says and later “Then my body memory kicks in/All bosoms and embraces/Oral, anal entrances/Enjoy the satisfaction/If the other is growing.” It’s Vespertine XXX Parody on this project, really delving head first into hookup culture.
Speaking of, this is her Tinder album after all. “Features Creatures” really checks that box, talking about dating men who are similar to her ex, down to the height and facial hair. It’s habitual, it’s her body memory. The rambunctious “Courtship” is literally just finding a hot person on a dating app and not getting past the talking stage. Of course, since Björk is an alien, she describes that as “the paralyzing juice of rejection.” Later when she finds someone to fuck, she says “I then upturned a green-eyed giant/Who upturned and entered me…The ghosts of old loves/Hovering around his orifices. You can really tell that she is attempting to get over her ex, but just like FKA twigs on “tears in the club”, that person is deeply embedded in their love language. “Claimstaker” feels like a lighter reprise of “Body Memory”, with the lyrics “This forest lives in me.” It’s a confident exertion of power, of birds chirping inside and out, of harmony. This is the throughline of the album, ending with the stunning “Future Forever”. Björk has always been one for panoramic closers, but this one feels especially made for a full audiovisual experience. In the same way she predicted ASMR on “Headphones”, she embraces new technology in her older years on this one.
She treats this prior version of herself like a switch, “Your past is on a loop, turn it off.” She lets the Arca production completely envelope her, just like FKA twigs does on “thank you song” at the end of CARPISONGS. It’s really beautiful to see Arca fall back into the shadows and bless others again, because that’s essentially when she got her start. It comes full circle after showing everything she’s got on her KICK album cycle. On Utopia, she provides Björk with both ammunition and bandages in this war against her husband, and at the very end, there is a ceasefire and she breaks free from him. “The Gate” is open, and love is flowing freely from it.
The craziest similarity I’m noticing between all the 2022 albums and Utopia is casualness. Not in the sense that none of them aren’t trying really hard, in fact, they all seem to be doing more than ever. The Weeknd and FKA twigs upend their respective sounds and risk single power for flow and cohesion, while Earl seems to be doing the same thing but gaining single power as a result. It’s the casualness of sharing emotions, love and trauma that links all these albums. All the feelings were formerly suppressed, but now they’re on full, sometimes overstuffed display. Utopia is an hour and 11 minutes in length, for example. All of these albums are flawed gems, not quite reaching perfection for one reason or another. While something like Homogenic or Yeezus or MAGDALENE or I Don’t Like Shit or even House of Balloons felt concise and essential at every turn, all the records I discussed today feel unkempt, in the best way possible. Yes, The Hateful Eight by is not concise as other Tarantino films like Django Unchained, but it feels like the underdog with heart that might one day beat out the “classic”. Utopia is real, it’s nature uninterrupted, unencumbered by expectations of any kind, accepting just being one’s self.