mu­sic The Pos­si­ble Fu­ture

Anwen Craw­ford on Björk’s Utopia

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Anwen Craw­ford on Björk’s ‘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

Part of her power as a fe­male mu­si­cian has been the painstak­ing hand­i­craft of her mu­sic, a hand­i­craft that is nei­ther iro­nised nor fetishised.

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.

Björk’s utopia hov­ers, as utopian imag­in­ings do, be­tween a dis­tant but recog­nis­able past and a fu­ture that can only be faintly in­ti­mated.

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.

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