December 2017 – January 2018

Arts & Letters

The possible future

By Anwen Crawford

Photo by Santiago Felipe

Björk moves towards renewal on ‘Utopia’

How very Björk of Björk to laden her new album, Utopia, with flute. It is the world’s oldest extant musical instrument. Paleolithic flutes, carved out of vulture wing and swan bone, discovered in German alpine caves, provide evidence of human musicality that dates back 40,000 years, more or less. One can imagine Björk playing a swan bone, making the kind of jazz-ish flute melody that might turn up millennia later in a hip-hop song: Future’s ‘Mask Off’, for instance, or Kodak Black’s ‘Tunnel Vision’, both replete with flute, both released this year. The flute is having a moment and Björk is right there in it, even as her music suggests more atavistic – and more avant-garde – means.

The flutes on Utopia’s title track gambol amid samples of birdsong, and the birdsong itself is hyperreal in its clarity, like the Disney ideal of avian sound. Björk sings at a high pitch, her tone clear, though her English lyrics are obscured, as they often are, by her distinctive Icelandic accent and her peculiar vocal phrasing. She gives equal weight to every syllable, so that each word comes to feel like a multiplying universe.

Multiplicity, one might venture, is Björk’s utopia. Everything in her long career suggests it: her ability to move across musical genres and epochs; her collaborative energies; her penchant for multimedia experimentation – apps, virtual reality, cryptocurrency – and, not least, the fecundity of her elaborate costumes and art direction. The cover of Utopia sees Björk transformed by an opalescent exoskeleton. A growth planted across her masked face echoes the shape of a woman’s reproductive organs. She holds a flute, and her throat has finger holes, too; a visual indication of the instrument’s relationship to the human voice, for a flute has no reed, and requires only breath in order to produce its sound. Flute was Björk’s first instrument, even before singing; “it really trained my lungs well with breathing and stamina”, she told W magazine recently. She was interviewing herself, a stunt that Björk can pull off because her vitality creates the impression of a person who can spill her own boundaries. Effusion is the word for it, matched to a critical intelligence.

Björk released her first album, an Icelandic-language collection of covers and originals, in 1977, when she was 12. She spent her teens in punk bands and her early 20s in The Sugarcubes, a group that began as a joke among friends but gained attention with their English-language song ‘Birthday’, released as a single in 1987 and included on the group’s debut album, Life’s Too Good (1988). ‘Birthday’ was a vision of childhood that honoured a child’s unrestrained sensual pleasure for the world at large (“Scrabbles in the earth with her fingers and her mouth / She’s five years old”). And it introduced listeners outside of Iceland – or a certain clued-in segment of them, the sort who read the music press and stayed up watching Rage – to the unmistakeable sound of Björk, whose voice flowed over the song’s relaxed groove like lava.

Voice has continued to be the central part of Björk’s musical practice, and how could it not be, when she is gifted with a voice both powerfully unusual and unusually powerful? Nature provides the easiest similes for the richness of her timbre, but it would be an error to think that her unique sound is either unwitting or undisciplined. From album to album she has known precisely how to use her voice as an instrument, and how to shape it, like a material. She growls, yodels, shrieks, rolls out her “r”s like wet tarmac, presses her sibilants into steaming ribbons. The net effect is often sumptuously bizarre.

The pleasure and the drama of Björk’s early adult solo catalogue – Debut (1993), Post (1995) and Homogenic (1997) – were in listening to her voice move across all manner of complementary textures: brass, strings, harp, electronics. ‘Jóga’, from Homogenic, may be the most ravishing example, with a lush and sombre string section that slowly gives way, like an eroding cliff, to the friction of a distorted beat. “And you push me up to / This state of emergency,” Björk sings. Her vaulting melody suggests a crisis, but the warm resonance of her voice tells that the crisis is welcome, that it consists of a love coming to light.

These “emotional landscapes”, as she sang on ‘Jóga’, have remained consistent. Companionship, the land itself (especially Iceland), the erotic and sensual connections between these things, have been her thematic concerns. But ever since Vespertine (2001), the varying weaves of Björk’s music have largely been generated by her voice itself, now multi-tracked, multiplied, so that she becomes her own rhythm section, choir, and orchestra. (Sometimes she will use more traditional forms of the latter two, in addition.) Her later albums, especially Vespertine, Medúlla (2004) and Biophilia (2011), resemble tapestries in their continuous sonic density. And if that seems a gendered comparison to make, then perhaps it is one that Björk herself would not reject. Part of her power as a female musician has been the painstaking handicraft of her music, a handicraft that is neither ironised nor fetishised, and which, importantly, is equally apparent in her use of digital and analogue tools. These albums are hard work, but their implicit argument to the listener is that the labour involved in making and then comprehending them is honourable.

The interdependence of this labour with Björk’s own sense of self-creation was particularly evident on Vulnicura (2015), an album that tracked the breakdown of her long-term relationship with American visual artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney. “When I did this album – it all just collapsed,” she told critic Jessica Hopper in an emotional interview at the time of the album’s release. “The only way I could deal with that was to start writing for strings.” These string arrangements, no longer lush but austere, formed the warp of songs like ‘Stonemilker’ and ‘Black Lake’. “You have nothing to give / Your heart is hollow,” Björk sang on the latter track, addressing her ex-partner directly. The layering that had become her habit was dropped, leaving her voice isolated and unconsoled; the songs’ weft was made instead out of rough, heavily processed electronics. Vulnicura was candid but not artless. It was an act of mourning that drew attention to an absence, and, in so doing, became a careful monument to that absence.

Now comes Utopia, a pastoral to follow the elegy. But this is not Björk’s folk or, god forbid, “unplugged” album. Acoustic instruments, like harp, are reconfigured by digital processing. Björk’s utopia hovers, as utopian imaginings do, between a distant but recognisable past and a future that can only be faintly intimated, and which may never come into being.

‘The Gate’, released in September in advance of the album, is a stand-out. The song coaxes the listener towards that utopian isle – wherever it may be – with a thronging introduction, and then it plunges into a cave, where starkly delineated clicks and chirrups reverberate through an enormous sonic space. “My healed chest wound / Transformed into a gate / Where I receive love from / Where I give love from,” Björk sings, facing the devastation of her previous record and then swinging away from it. The chorus is one incantatory phrase – “I care for you, care for you” – uttered against a flurry of synthesiser and bass drum. “I care for you” suggests the possibility of transfiguration but not necessarily its happening; the “you” never answers back, and the sheer spatial depth of the song suggests that calamity, as much as magic, could occur here.

Not everything on the album is as vivid, or as vulnerable. Some songs – ‘Blissing Me’, ‘Features Creatures’ – luxuriate in the imminence of a new romance, without the concomitant danger that can be sensed in ‘The Gate’. “I literally think / I am five minutes away from love,” sings Björk on the latter, against a backdrop of wind-whistling noises. ‘Loss’ is more difficult, as befits its title, pinning a busy pattern of instrumental and vocal melodies to forceful percussive programming, until the latter overwhelms.

‘Loss’ was produced by rising electronic musician Rabit (check out his new album, Les Fleurs Du Mal, for a strong whiff of the dystopian), but the bulk of production on Utopia has been handled, as it was on Vulnicura, by Alejandro Ghersi, aka Arca. He is one of a youngish breed of musicians and producers who can traverse the worlds of pop and experimental electronics with ease, as Björk herself has often done. Arca has worked on several of the more forward-sounding releases of the past few years: Kanye West’s Yeezus (2013), FKA Twigs’ EP2 (2013), Kelela’s Hallucinogen (2015). His third, self-titled album was released this year, and it also foregrounds the voice, in disquietingly intimate ways. It is clear that he and Björk have forged a dynamic partnership. “She gave me so much guidance,” said Arca of Björk, regarding his recent album. “It’s the strongest musical relationship I’ve had,” remarked Björk, in turn, of hers. She has previously been wary, and weary, of the attention paid to her (often male) producers at the expense of her own creative role, but this time around she appears happy to have her work with Arca discussed as a “utopian musical collaboration”, to use her own words.

Together the two musicians have created a sound world that repays close scrutiny. Here are the flutes again, for example, on ‘Tabula Rasa’, creating poignant melodies that float above the slow-moving heft of a string section. The musical and titular echo of contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose Tabula Rasa was composed in 1977, cannot be accidental; Björk once interviewed Pärt for a BBC documentary, and her ‘Tabula Rasa’ shares with his a respect for silence as a sonic quality in its own right, out of which music can be carved. And the song is, thematically, where Björk’s own personal pursuit of renewal meets the need for our wider world to be rejuvenated, even rescued, from its present circumstances. “Tabula rasa for my children / Please,” she sings. If only it were possible to begin all over again.

The title of Utopia’s closing song, ‘Future Forever’, suggests just that: a constant regeneration, a moment eternally suspended from regret or disillusionment. “See this possible future / And be in it,” Björk sings, returning to her highest register. Instruments twinkle. “Forever” is the album’s last sung word, followed by an exhalation. The music resolves on a major chord, as inexorable as the sunset, or the dawn.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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