This take may seem contrary but only because the conventional critical wisdom is that Everything Björk Creates Is Great And Important. If we don’t understand and can’t grasp it, perhaps it is us who have the problem. Go listen to the Chainsmokers or Bieber, Mike. This is real music.
I don’t like this Björk album therefore I’m the problem. The possibility that Björk is more interested in the creative process and sound texture instead of. . . y’know, writing songs. . . yeah, that couldn’t possibly be the problem here.
The songs on Utopia sound like much like the songs on pretty much everything she’s done since Homogenic with one exception. I’ll get to that later. But you have to admit that every time a new Björk album pops up, there’s something very intriguing about the backstory of how it got made. Perhaps the album will come with a neat little hook like the Biophilia app. The net result ends up being that the backstory and the process and the sideshow of such new album. . . ends up being more interesting than the album content itself.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look back, shall we? Vespertine featured a harpist and “microbeats” created from household sounds. The accompanying tour featured said harpist and an all-female Inuit choir.
Medúlla was a mostly acapella album. What few “tracks” were built on that album were built from vocal samples. Volta hyped collaborations with hip-hop producer Timbaland, yet still found time to feature heavy brass and horn sections. I’ve already mentioned the Biophilia app. Vulcinara and now Utopia are two sides of the same coin, dealing with the pain and recovery of heartbreak stemming from the end of her relationship with Matthew Barney. Almost all of these albums have been accompanied by an alternate album, either featuring concert recordings from that album’s tour or remixes of tracks or in the case of Vulcinara an all-strings version featuring an ancient instrument invented by freaking Leonardo da Vinci that maybe five people in the entire world play.
Are you beginning to see my point? No limit seems to exist for Björk when it comes to experimenting with incredibly esoteric means of music production. The problem is that when the final product is released, it is a Björk album that sounds like practically every other Björk album over the last fifteen years. Björk has done this before and much better on Debut, Post and especially Homogenic.
How is it that after all these different ways of collaboration and experimentation we keep ending up at the same place? We’ve gone from Homogenic to homogenenic. I’m sorry? I’m not being contrary just to do it. I can’t think of any time she’s been harshly criticized or mocked except for two times: wearing that swan dress to the Oscars and for chanting “Tibet” at a concert in China.
The only time she’s broken out of her rut is on Medúlla, the acapella album and therefore the one with the most restrictive (self-enforced) parameters. Without her precious strings, she relies on vocal tics, beatboxers, guest singers, guest choirs. The tracks she makes with Rahzel, like “Where Is The Line?” and “Triumph Of The Heart”, are the ones that grab the hardest. Forced to pin her vocals to beats, she connects to the intensity and fury of prior classics like “Army Of Me” and “Bachelorette”.
If you’re wondering why I’m even bothering to do this, here’s why. Because music criticism can be worthwhile but the current state of music criticism is pathetic. Tied into the business of promotion, many albums get the vocab equivalent of fellatio by the popular music review sites. Access journalism has made it where these writers and websites are practically competing to see who can write the most flattering review. Do they actually like this stuff? Do they really think it is good? Will they be listening to it a month from now, or a year from now?
The only time critics dare do their jobs and criticize an album is when the stakes are low. You can say whatever you want about U2’s new album because everyone has already made up their mind about U2 either way. It’s easy to say whatever you want about, say, Luke Bryan because the kind of people who will listen to him aren’t going to care about a bad review anyway.
There is no personal agenda to this except I want better music and if I didn’t think she was capable of delivering it I wouldn’t even bother.
I could be wrong, Björk fans. But let me ask you this: the new album. Have you listened it much since you first listened it? Have you kept listening to it? Is it rewarding? Is there ONE song on Utopia that as soon as it finishes you want to hear it again immediately? Is there a “Hyperballad” or “Unravel” on this album and I’m not hearing it?
Because from this vantage point, it’s starting to feel like a chore.