This is a column called Major Keys written by Phil Witmer, the only actual musician employed by Noisey. It's about timbres, theory, chords (lots of 'em), and how these nerdy qualities make us feel things.
If Björk’s new album Utopia proves anything, it’s that her music is inherently unable to be covered. It’s not because most singers can’t match her vocal acrobatics or because the arrangements take too many weird turns; it’s because a Björk song is a holistic work where each part is wholly inseparable from the other. This is especially evident in a spare piece like Vulnicura’s epic bloodletting session “Black Lake,” where her singing is an extension of the strings, while the strings themselves likewise play off the singing. Going back further, we have Homogenic and “Joga,” where the layers of glitchy percussion would normally overwhelm the orchestra, the trip-hop bass, and Björk herself, but they don’t. The drums just lock in place and form another link in the song’s elemental structure.
In that regard, reducing a Björk song down to just guitar or piano would be doing them a disservice because their chord progressions are usually implied and not easy to extract. Björk’s a singer/songwriter who thinks like a composer and operates like a DJ. She writes abstract but emotionally invested songs, considers them as broad tableaux, then assembles them from stacking disparate parts together. Combined with her curiosity and active interest in new sounds, that unique approach may be why her music is consistently exciting and never feels trapped in the 90s. But if there is a guiding light, an anchor if you will, that the Icelander uses, the best place to look would be to her voice. Her vocals distinguish themselves through distinctive melodic intervals and non-verbal textures to create that otherwise unclassifiable Björk-ness more than any other element of her song-craft.
As a vocalist, Björk is obviously known for her unmistakable timbre and unpredictable, often theatrical phrasing. She’s toned down on the latter as her music has become less interested in fitting into a marketable version of “quirky” over the years, instead choosing to explore the strange sounds humans can make with their tongues, their lips, and their lungs. 2001’s Vespertine featured unsettlingly intimate vocal takes that made Björk’s between-line inhales into part of her melodies and Utopia continues that bent. On “The Gate,” Björk transforms the word “parts” into a feline purr, then a hiss. In “Features Creatures,” the “m” sound of “from love” practically becomes a sine wave note, so thickly does it resonate. Her words become tactile sensations, sometimes comforting and sometimes not, but the occasional reminder that Björk is a human with saliva and warm breath serves as a counterpoint to her heady concepts. The intent on making what comes through your headphones as physical as possible is also appropriate since her last three albums including this one have been about the natural world in some way. Björk’s quasi-ASMR obsession is just one part of her vocal science, the other is what’s woven into her melodic sensibilities.
The melodies Björk chooses to sing don’t sound like anyone else’s. They are slow and deliberate, each syllable occupying its own position along a nodular path like a video game skill tree. These melodies are also interesting because of their intervals, the leap one note takes from another. A favourite of hers throughout the years is a set of three notes. You can hear it a lot in the Utopia opener “Arisen My Senses” but its use stretches across many of her older songs, like “All Is Full of Love,” for example, rising and falling like a conductor's baton. These notes form a major triad so we’re gonna get technical here. A triad is one of the simplest forms a chord can take: it starts with the root and the perfect fifth, which by themselves don’t make a chord with any major or minor feel. It’s only when the major or minor third is added between them that it becomes the respective triad. For whatever reason, Björk likes to put that major third as the top note instead of the middle in that three-note melodic phrase she likes so much.
Combined with her halting, careful cadences, these particular simple intervals are the exact same as—no bullshit—the bugle calls used by British Commonwealth countries for military purposes. You’ll maybe never un-hear Björk as a human bugle now but these intervals are used by armies for a reason. They’re powerful, harmonically elemental, and easy to remember, so no matter how aurora borealis dazzling her arrangements get, Björk is singing melodies that a toddler could memorize. This isn’t to say these are dumb songs, just that there is an innate, accessible whimsy to Björk’s music that goes deeper than her increasingly next-level makeup and costumes for each successive album cover. Accessing the fantasy worlds that exist within our own world is tough work, but it’s a job that Björk is equipped to take.
Utopia is Björk through and through: uncaring of genre or of having a single in the traditional sense. There are some nods to the present: mulched, pitched-down trap snares echo in the depths of “Arisen My Senses,” while hi-hats glitter across the song’s rapturous peaks like frozen-over wires. And in the Year of the Flute Jam, Björk has surpassed Future, Playboi Carti, and Drake by employing an entire woodwind section on most of the album. Never say she doesn’t know what the kids are into. For the most part, though, Björk is almost stubbornly herself, even if—thanks to the production help of Arca and others—that self is not necessarily a singular entity. That she has kept a cohesive identity across so many forms of expression (voice, musical arrangements, visuals) and via so many collaborators is nothing short of inspiring. And by honing in on the textural and melodic quirks of her voice, she always has sturdy emotional roots for her unceasing experimentation.
Phil is on Twitter.