A statement of theme for Björk’s Utopia arrives eight minutes into “Body Memory,” the album’s sprawling fugue of a centerpiece: “Kafkaesque/A force like patriarchy/Avoid it to confront it.” The track is the climax of a five-song cycle of rejuvenation. Over glassy, cascading synth blasts and distorted percussion, opener “Arisen My Senses” finds a chorus of multi-tracked Björks rhapsodizing, in an abstracted display of passion, about “a kiss.” On the following track, the ballad “Blissing Me,” Björk exclaims that “all of my mouth was kissing him” and clarifies more specifics of the romance: “two music nerds obsessing…sending each other MP3s, falling in love to a song.”
Appropriately, the complete surrender to love on “Blissing Me” takes the form of Björk’s most tuneful and accessible song in a decade—at least for a little while. As lyrics become more tentative and self-effacing, the melody and composition are carefully deconstructed; notes are distended and repeated, and additional elements enter and obscure the initially sparse arrangement.
Such is the intuitive tension of Utopia, which arrives two years after Björk’s bitter, difficult breakup album Vulnicura, and represents both an earnest and honest desire to reconcile a yearning for future happiness with the lingering pain of the past. With “Body Memory,” that dichotomy takes on physical dimensions: Over 10 minutes of churning industrial noise, choral, and ethereal woodwinds, Björk stages a struggle between the psychological stress of her heart and mind and the versatility of her body. It sounds like a just slightly dancier version of the Knife’s “Fracking Fluid Injection,” and it enthralls because its narrative distills avant-garde Björk’s rejection of her pop-leaning past, both here and on Vulnicura, into a statement of artistic autonomy.
Why Utopia ultimately feels more accomplished and rewarding than Vulnicura is because its densest, most challenging music exists as a counterpoint to ebullient songs like “Courtship,” with its somersaulting melody and baroque instrumentation, and “Saint,” a gorgeous pastoral hymn featuring some of Björk’s finest vocal work and orchestral arrangements. But it’s also because the progression from avant-garde disorder to accessible calm feels so excitingly unresolved: The tranquil birdsongs on the coda of “Courtship” give way to a mini-suite that brings about a relapse into the abrasive darkness of “Body Memory” and especially the nightmarish “Sue Me,” which appears to reference the lawsuit that Björk’s ex brought against her for not letting him spend enough time with their daughter, Isadora. The track also fits neatly into the narrative, arriving at an urgent concern for the damage done by men and a sincere plea to let it end before its effects reach future generations: “Let’s break this curse/So it won’t fall on our daughter/And her daughter.”
Unfortunately, the broader ambitions of Utopia also result in Björk’s lengthiest album (well over an hour). All 10 minutes of “Body Memory” do plenty in terms of expressing Björk’s complicated relationship with her burgeoning new romantic feelings, to the point that the five minutes of nearly a cappella droning that immediately follow it, “Features Creatures,” put an unnecessary drag on the album’s momentum. Both “Claimstaker” and the closing “Future Forever” also don’t develop their own sound, or the album’s, enough to warrant ballooning Utopia’s runtime.
In fact, the album’s excessive duration becomes the fundamental facet that tips an ever-precarious balance between Björk’s competing identities as a one-time pop artist and a sometime avant-gardist. That isn’t really surprising at this point, since overkill has become something of Björk’s m.o.: Consider the acoustic and live versions of Vulnicura released last year, or the elaborate web of ephemeral iOS application’s that accompanied the release of 2011’s Biophilia. But the bit of dead weight here is especially frustrating, since Björk seems to have reconjured the elements that made her music so exceptional, and consistently enough that one can imagine a shorter, more curated iteration of Utopia that could stand with her very best albums.