Icelandic singer-songwriter's ninth studio represents the next chapter in her life
If the striking cover and promo shots which accompany Bjork's ninth studio album tell the prospective listener anything about what's going on inside, it's that she appears to have reinvented her muse as a futurist virtual reality canvas painted with images of nature and wildlife and rich with the chill of clean countryside air; but fed through Google Deep Dream and processed into some otherworldly, machine-learned approximation of algorithmic beauty.
We're not just clutching at straws here, this is exactly what the record sounds like, a digital symphony which samples flute, birdsong, crisply artificial beats and that eternally stunning voice. Composed once again with Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi (aka Arca, whose past credits include FKA Twigs and Kanye West), much has been made of Utopia's status as the yang to her last record Vulnicura's (2015) yin. That one was the tortured and despondent response to her breakup with long-term partner Matthew Barney, while this album represents the next chapter in her life, an ageless springtime of renewal and new possibilities.
The opening 'Arisen My Senses' is one of the most accessible tracks here, an electronic waterfall of whispered house beats which never quite hit the drop. Instead, Björk's voice caresses with lyrics which suggest tentative new love; 'just that kiss / was all there is / every cell in my body / lined up to you'. 'Blissing Me' continues this gentle digital pop and hiss, with a very timely tale of long-distance digital love consummated by emailing music; 'sending each other MP3s / falling in love to a song'.
'The Gate' is stunning in its low-keyness, a few minimal ambient effects and a memorable descending signature of… what is that? It sounds like a pan-pipe, treated by the machines, with Björk ploughing home a cooing mantra in which she insists that she will 'care for you / care for you'. Addressed to a lover, perhaps, but her listeners will find comfort, as always, in her voice - and later, in the majesty of the standout 'Body Memory', its dense sweep of strings, swirling seabird coos and animal yelps lending power to a reconciliation of her love for nature and the reality of her urban existence in New York, all the while processing fragmentary memories of her life.
At least, those with a knowledge of Björk's biography, as close as she keeps her cards to her chest, might see hints of her story throughout this album – in the ghostly 'Feature Creatures', in the light-hearted 'Courtship', in the potentially Barney-directed 'Sue Me' – but it's not the kind of record you turn to for gossipy intrigue. Or in fact, for a new 'Violently Happy'. There are minimal choruses and no obvious 'pop' songs here, and it's next to impossible to recommend Utopia unreservedly as a record any listener may be able to hear and instantly adore.
Instead, it's more like the recording of an imagined sound installation, a work whose ambition and execution is stunning, but which requires some effect on the part of the listener to find the correct headspace to enjoy it. Just listen to the closing 'Future Forever', which invites the listener to 'imagine a future and be in it / feel this incredible nurture, soak it in / your past is on loop, turn it off / see this possible future and be in it'; Björk's poetic lyricism, as ever, is stunning, but we literally have to listen hard to tune into the sound of her world.
Danceable and upbeat, with interludes that collage tracks with the sounds of ships mooring and setting sail, a foghorn's call and response, sea birds, rain, and a train, Volta, the latest chapter in Björk's shape-shifting career, is another departure for the artist. "It was really different from how I usually work," Björk…