Essays

Björk’s Beautiful 'Utopia' Is Hopeful in the Face of Decay

Björk Guðmundsdóttir has always worked together with nature, but on her new album, for the first time, she creates her own ecology. It's a stunning response to our ugly Anthropocene.

by Lewis Gordon
11 December 2017, 9:27am

Santiago Felipe / Getty Images

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.

In a 2003 documentary, there’s a moment where Björk Guðmundsdóttir describes her early memories of singing and songwriting. Björk tells the interviewer that, walking to and from school in Iceland – sometimes in blizzards, sometimes in howling winds – she would map out melodies to the landscape. “You could be all quiet and whispery and sneak down next to the moss and sing a verse,” she said. “And then you could stand up and run to a hill and sing a chorus. You had to do that quite loudly because the weather was strong.” Björk’s work has always worked in conjunction with the nature of a place, never against it. But Utopia, her latest album, might be the first time she has attempted to create an entirely new ecology, a new system of connections. It is both fiercely political and intimately personal.

The timing couldn’t be more pertinent. On the November 13, more than 15,000 scientists signed a document simply titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” detailing how deforestation, agricultural production, and the burning of fossil fuels are all continuing to contribute to the irreversible devastation of the biosphere. Another recent report asserted that carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere at record speed last year, while the sixth mass extinction event is already underway. The population groups of billions of species will be wiped out in the process. Collectively, these processes are beginning to be recognised by scientists as the Anthropocene, a newly formulated geological epoch in which the detritus of humanity is observable in the makeup of the world. These processes display, at best, a disinterest in the natural world and, at worst, contempt for anything non-human. Now, though, Björk has returned with a window into a possible future, one where the writing isn’t yet scratched indelibly into the wall.

Utopia opens with gentle birdsong and an unwinding synth scrawl that sounds like an animal darting from the speakers. Björk sings “and just that kiss was all there is” before the song erupts into a soupy, primordial ecstasy. She’s called Utopia her “Tinder album,” a response to her previous record, 2015’s Vulnicura, documenting her break-up with long-term partner, Matthew Barney. This isn’t inner-city Tinder, though – awkward dates, casual sex and painful small talk – this is Björk Tinder, an emotional openness with everything. The first track, “Arisen My Senses,” sounds like the artist emerging from a particularly long, painful period in her life. Lead single “The Gate” begins with the sound of wind, water, and the cooing of the strange, floating life forms in its video before she sing-song chants, “I care for you, care for you.”

That Björk has infused ecological concerns with such emotion, twinning it with her own rediscovered openness, shouldn’t be surprising. She’s never used nature as window dressing. On her 1997 single “Jóga,” she bellows “emotional landscapes” amidst deep, windswept cellos and beats that threaten to crack open the earth’s crust. It’s a love song but the relationship is as fractious and beautiful as the Icelandic landscape itself. 2001’s Vespertine, meanwhile, took the clicks of pointillist micro-rhythms – delicate, cellular creations – as the starting point to delve into her own interior, a counterpoint to the expansive, outward-looking Homogenic released four years prior.

On the surface, it’s Biophilia that appears closest to Utopia in outlook. On the former, Björk paired elements of music with naturally occurring phenomena, like arpeggios with lightning or chords with tectonic plates. Ten apps – one for each track and simple enough for children to use – were released, designed to explore each facet of the natural and musical world. It was informed by a deep research period including her attendance at the National Geographic Explorer Convention in 2009. Accompanying videos even included the narration of the twentieth and twenty-first century’s great environmentalist hero, David Attenborough. Then, in the accompanying press shots, she appeared to inhabit the entire cosmos, draped with constellations and clutching the deep past of crystalline rock formations. With Utopia, though, Björk seems less interested in a grand universalism and more content with forging living, breathing connections.

The pristine masks, designed by James Merry, that have adorned Björk’s face throughout Utopia’s promotional phase might be the physical manifestation of the album’s concerns. Appearing less like masks and more like biological fusions between herself and other organisms – part plantlife, part anemone – they’re unsettling creations channeling something verging on body horror. The album cover itself takes the transformation further. Her skin and face have changed texture and colour – protrusions grow out of her forehead and around the nose – highly sexual (not sexy) armour readied for battle. Tucked in the ribbing of her neck is a sleeping baby animal – impossibly cute. It’s an unflinching declaration of love – a willingness to cleave off part of her own identity for another and, in the process, create something new.

Her 2015 collaboration with eco-philosopher, Timothy Morton – a series of letters – hinted at these ideas. Morton’s work has long advocated a fundamental reevaluation of our relationship to the natural world (indeed, for Morton there is no natural world, only the world). Kicking back against the apocalyptic doom-mongering of mainstream media, his looping, dense prose methodically argues for a state of coexistence with all ecology. In one letter to Björk, he says, “I think that there is a connection in your work between self-care and care for other beings” while in another, trying to figure out an appropriate-ism for Björk (at her request), he sheepishly ventures “pan-eroticisim,” a gleeful mirror to the seedling masks and album artwork.

The single from 1997’s Homogenic, “All Is Full Love,” is a precursor to much of this thinking, a song of almost impossible generosity. Just as techno-futurism courses through that video, so too does it pump through her and Morton’s work. Their response to ecological crisis isn’t a retreat into primitivism but instead an unflinching, wholesale embrace of technologies. “You think ecologically tuned life means being all efficient and pure,” reads Morton’s 2016 pinned tweet on Twitter. “Wrong. It means you can have a disco in every room of your house.” Björk pins part of her outlook on Iceland’s distinct, historical development. She says the country missed much of the industrialisation the rest of Europe experienced and instead careened from its 1944 independence into the full blown “green techno internet age.”

Björk already appears to be done with that era, though. The cybernetic naturalism of previous records has given way to Utopia’s eco-fantasia and it’s telling what she’s decided to take with her. The chirping of Venezuelan and Icelandic birds will be audible in this future, even if they might not make it much longer in the present. Their inclusion feels aggressively defiant. There’s space, too, for an all-female twelve-piece flute orchestra who give Utopia its air-light feel and sonic openness. Researching the record, Björk delved into the mythological stories of Africa, South America, Indonesia, and Iceland. In each of those regions she found stories of women who had fled hardship with their children, some of them nabbing flutes in the process. Usually, they’d meet a sticky end at the hands of their male oppressors but this time around, Björk has changed the ending. On the final track she sings, “Imagine a future…. Feel this incredible nurture, soak it in… Watch me form new nests, we’ve made a matriarchal dome.”

It might seem like the corniest thing in the world but Björk holds true to the idea that we can only care for the earth by caring about each other. In the early noughties she said, “I’ve always been 1000% certain that I was an atheist and I’m slowly starting to realise that perhaps I have a religion and it’s nature.” Like other religions, the grace of the natural world touches every aspect of her life – Björk’s ecological concerns find expression in her personal interior. On “Body Memory”, she transcends the grief of her dissolved relationship, partly through finding solace in the environment. “The moss that I’m made of, I redeem myself,” she sings, awakening from the break-up and isolation of Vulnicura. The openness and love she’s discovered isn’t just confined to humanity, it extends like a mantra into the future. In Björk’s world, there’s no room for the apocalypse or eco-fatalism, just the shimmering promise of something better. It is colossally hopeful.

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