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The Lead Review

In Love, With Love: Björk’s Utopia
Lottie Brazier , November 23rd, 2017 10:08

The new album from Björk is the light and pleasure to Vulnicura’s darkness and pain, but there’s much more to it than that, says Lottie Brazier

“You shouldn’t let poets lie to you,” Björk concludes, in a Sugarcubes interview from 1988. She’s just finished exploring the true workings of her television - information that was previously hidden from her by an Icelandic poet who had a more metaphorical (and slightly judgemental) explanation for how a TV works. Björk takes the back off the television to demonstrate how it actually works, how it can put “her into different situations” - such as programmes about the art of Iceland. It is abundantly clear that Björk is interested in the technology behind electronic media, that she is interested in how one might use this to create art as well as display it. Through last year’s Björk Digital exhibition at Somerset House, for example, Björk in a sense created her own ‘television programme’ for the audience to inhabit, using the technology of virtual reality as a medium to enrich and extend her art.

Björk’s interest in technology does not mean that she embraces every outcome with uncritical positivity, of course. She has, half-jokingly, described Utopia as her “Tinder album”; she is interested in what apps like Tinder do for human relationships, and she seems to consider the buzz of a novel encounter to be an unsustainable fantasy. Utopia is not just an album about intimacy, it also expresses a degree of intimacy that goes beyond words - especially in the sense that her voice sounds so detailed here, and in the ways she works with Arca. The beats he contributes, especially on ‘The Gate’, sound as if they’re leveraging Bjork’s voice, like the diaphragm acting on her lung capacity as she sings.

And while we consider how Björk embraces new technology when it helps to intensify, expand or reinvent the ways in which we can express ourselves, we can’t miss how she plays with ecotechnology. It would be difficult to talk about Utopia without talking about the avant-drag in Bjork’s new visuals - particularly the work she’s done with Hungry, an artist who not only plays with gender performance but also make you consider the species of the artist. Under one of Hungry’s recent Instagram posts, someone describes her as “serving orchid mantis realness”, another announces her as “Miss Gay Entomology”. Together she and Björk play with our ideas of what it means to be a person, or to look like a person, and the new intimacies this affords.

This almost science-fictional concept of species-bending has become central to Björk’s lyrics, referring to her own “sub-human DNA” here on ‘Body Memory’. Utopia is riddled with a concern for bodies - the way they look and feel, sometimes in the abstract, often describing them as separate parts, or as the “lizard brain” with its voiceless, instinctive firings, or on ‘Courtship’ where she describes her “snake skin coiled”. Björk attempts to go beyond human consciousness, to imagine what it might be like to be another animal. She puts animal voices centrestage, manipulates them as if they are as vital as her own. What may be a sample of a wolf call gradually asserts its presence on the track, with a trembling quality which also contains the defensiveness of a predator. It’s as if she is looking for some sensory answer to the question of what it’s like to be other than human. A particularly masterful addition is the sampling from a record of Venezuelan bird calls, so they become second-hand field recordings, something reclaimed.

Björk’s skill as an eco-feminist science-fiction storyteller emerges further. On ‘Tabula Rasa’ she sings: “Tabula rasa for my children / Not repeating the fuck-ups of the fathers.” These lyrics were influenced by stories that her friend and artist James Merry found in several mythological traditions, from Iceland to South America, where women escape oppression and live peacefully together until, as Björk says in a recent interview, “the guys come and chop everyone’s heads off.” She continues: “I decided I’m going to change the ending. I think we can change it, you know.”

And it comes back to love, and intimacy. On 'Body Memory' she sings her flippant outrage at the “fucking mist”, as though we are with her during a walk and she’s sharing a bleak joke about this perilous “mystical fog” that causes her to lose her sense of direction by the edge of a cliff. We have become an acquaintance, a friend, an intimate. On ‘Blissing Me’ it feels almost jarring to hear Björk sing about the social intricacies of striking up a modern-day relationship: “Is this excess texting a blessing?” she asks, unsure. After the break-up heartache and rage of Vulnicura, she is in rich new territory. Intimacy, for her, includes the Tinder message flurries, exchanges of ideas and songs, but the song and its video tap into the desire for physicality too. “Did I just fall in love with love?” she asks, and a soft bird call responds. Björk lets her voice unravel, she is forceful and vulnerable at once. She moves from describing an abstract moment of sexual intimacy towards intimacy of friendship and beyond that. Björk would never lie to us, and that honesty is a golden intimacy.

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