FEATURE: The Dutch Auction and the Icelandic Queen: Why Björk’s Utopia Will Define 2017



The Dutch Auction and the Icelandic Queen:

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 PHOTO CREDIT: Jesse Kanda (for Dazed

Why Björk’s Utopia Will Define 2017


THIS year’s music, so far, has produced some great albums…


IN THIS PHOTO: The sleeve for Björk's album, Utopia/PHOTO CREDIT: Jesse Kanda/One Little Indian

but few explosions and surprises. Thank f*ck Björk Guðmundsdótti is here to provide a sensual dose of magic, mystery and quality – the legend will release her new album, Utopia, on 24th November. The title of this piece – the ‘Dutch auction’ part might miff – refers to the way we celebrate and adore an artist like Björk and throw our hand up as soon as something from her comes out; hoping to get ahead of the crowd and win a prize – a Dutch auction starts at a high price and, the first bidder who puts their hand up wins the prize. It might be tenuous but I was pleased with my wordplay! Of the fourteen tracks that will appear on Utopia: eight of them see the Icelandic star conjoin with other writers. Aside from Saint; the remainder are penned alongside Arca. This might sound like the artist being more collaborative but it is, in truth, how she has always done things – bringing other voices to help lift her music and add a new perspective. Björk’s ninth album is hotly-tipped and ALREADY gaining nominations for ‘album of the year’ – without hearing it; I have a feeling it will be my first choice come the end of the year. As the weather gets colder and grottier; we are going to be afforded an album of immense warmth and colour.

The Gate, the lead-off single, has turned heads and proved, since 2015’s Vulnicura, Björk has lost none of her ability to surprise and amaze. The quality up to its usual standard but the song is a more love-filled and simple track – relying on the purity of the vocal and lyrical expression: less to do with compositional and technological pioneering. I will talk about, among other things, her recent interview with Mary Anne Hobbs and the way Björk pushes technology – but I wanted to look forward to Utopia, if I may. If Utopia seems like a long wait for an album – it is only two years! – let it be known Björk started work on it straight after her previous record. If Vulnicura, in the creator’s mind, was a hell-like divorce: Utopia, as the title suggests, is the reverse. This new record is about love and finding new joy after a painful break-up. Someone who has undergone a rancorous and stressful split would naturally take time to reflect and rest. That is not the case with the intrepid Björk: she picked up the pen (or some electronic equivalent) and poured those hot and frightening emotions onto the screen/page. Rather than wallow in the depths of recrimination and accusation; what we find is a woman moving on and keen to explore the limits of new love.

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 PHOTO CREDIT: Jesse Kanda (for Dazed

It is very Björk to announce the release of an album with a hand-written note. That is the way the world knew about Utopia. She posted the missive on social media and, just like that, mouths were salivating. The fourteen-track record is the longest of Björk’s career and signifies someone unwilling to distil her fraught and evolving status – brevity and accessibility can wait for the next album! When speaking with Dazed earlier in the year; the subject of Iceland and geographic surroundings were brought into play:

For Björk, who grew up amid Iceland’s gnarly volcanic terrain, it’s perhaps unsurprising that her own vision of utopia is one that puts humanity in harmony with nature. “I’ve been talking about environmentalism for the last 20 years, about green energy and solar power and how technology is what’s going to help us collaborate with nature in a non-violent, amicable, collaborative way,” she says. “I talk about it a lot with my friend Anohni – she started the Future Feminism group. There’s this old argument that civilisation treats nature the same as man treats women – you have to oppress it and dominate in order to progress. I just don’t agree with that. There is another wayEmphasising these links to the natural world are the tranquil sounds of birdsong that appear between tracks.

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  PHOTO CREDIT: Jesse Kanda (for Dazed

While some of these are field recordings made by Björk herself, others were collected by musician David Toop on the 1980 release Hekura. It’s a subtle way of linking Björk’s past to her present: she describes Toop’s recordings as one of her favourite albums, while the nature of the sounds – captured in Venezuela in the 1970s – connects to her co-producer Arca’s home country”.

It was a revealing and eye-catching shoot – I have stolen/credited shots from that interview here – that laid out the objectives and facts regarding the album:

Björk may be searching for utopia in an unstable world, but at the same time, it seems like she’s having more fun than she ever has right now. I’m not surprised when she describes her new record as a ‘dating album’. “It’s like my Tinder album,” she says slyly. “It is definitely about that search – and about being in love. Spending time with a person you enjoy on every level is obviously utopia, you know? I mean, it’s real. It’s when the dream becomes real.”

On the subject of love, one moment on the album sticks out. While Björk says her lyrics shouldn’t be read as 100 per cent biographical, one song, “Features Creatures”, describes the feeling of seeing someone with the same beard and the same accent as a lover. Is she talking about anyone specific? “Yeah,” she says sheepishly, holding back a smile that’s creeping across her face. She doesn’t want to say any more. “I mean, I’ve thought about what I would say here – I set myself up with the last album being a heartbreak album, so everyone’s gonna be like, ‘Are you married?’ with this one. But… it’s too fragile still. I think, if I could, I’d just say this is my dating album. Let’s just leave it there.

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 PHOTO CREDIT: Jesse Kanda (for Dazed

Björk has been on the block long enough to know how to transition from the perils of unpredictable love and create an album that vibrates and amazes – whereas so many songwriters are keen to turn the knife into the stomach and see their sacrificial blood seep all over the microphone. The ghastly imagery is something music listeners do not need for a steady meal. Björk has had her heart kicked in the nuts but that does not mean she is ready to scratch the eyes from kittens and start huffing paint. Instead, she has rallied her soul and channelled it into, what could be, her defining album. Björk does not make bad albums – Hell; she doesn’t even make average ones! – so one can imagine the critical reaction and assessments. It is the promotion and publicity surrounding Utopia that has amazed me. Gone are the days one would see our Björk don a swan outfit and court a storm of publicity and controversy. What was always fascinating and enduring about Björk was her intelligence, perspective and outlook on the world. I will bring in a recent interview where she is in rude and fantastic form – joking and providing an illuminating insight into her creative process.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Jesse Kanda (for Dazed

Utopia is going to stand out from the rest, not only because of the nebulous talent of Björk, but the timelessness. We require a record that brings some light and amazement to an intrudingly black and unsure world; one that reaches into the ventricles and pulls our veins in directions akin to a puppet show – letting the blood flow happily and the head spin in all sort of directions! Arca’s input is an interesting one but, as Björk said, quite natural. In Acra; Björk discovered a huge musician and kindred soul: someone who was on the same page and did not need too much direction. Utopia is non-narrative and the embrace of love and rediscovery: it is not about hatred and feeling burned. I shall not quote and source the entire interview (Björk conducted) with The Guardian - lest I be accused of creative impotency – but there were periods and paragraphs that stood out. Conducted in a Reykjavík hotel – where Björk turned up feeling a little scruffy and grungy – it saw the heroine reveal the background, process and D.N.A. of the album. Early on; she reflects on the period between Vulnicura and the seeds of Utopia:

We did the final gigs for Vulnicura in Carnegie Hall,” she remembers, “and they were so tragic. Everybody who ever had a broken heart ever was there, and they were all telling me their stories. It was really sweet and, genuine, you know? And with the performances, I was like: ‘This has to be discreet, and treated with grace.’ But after the first one, I almost felt guilty. Because the whole room was crying and I was not. Me and Alejandro [Ghersi, AKA electronic artist Arca, who worked on Vulnicura] were guiltily drinking champagne in the back going: ‘Next time we’re going to have fun, OK?’ I wanted this album to go towards the light. You indulge in the grief to a certain point, but then you have to be a little bit Pollyanna.”

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PHOTO CREDIT: Santiago Felipe/One Little Indian

That sense of numbness and guilt is not what one would expect from a musician who was at the core and foundation of the turbulence. Speaking of the frightening times we live in – and juxtaposing that with a frame of positivity – Björk explained the need to inject hope into her new music:

Another idea of utopia came about because, in these scary Trumpian times, she wanted to show that optimism is a choice. “He got elected when I was two years into the album,” she says, “and I felt like, OK, it’s really important now to be intentional. If you feel this world is not heading the right way, you have to be DIY and make a little fortress, over here to the left.”

Björk talked about talked about the way she connects inner-emotions and notations; how her love life has been and whether she has been active in the dating scene. On the first point, she revealed this:

I don’t know that I got all this from one listen, though the sense of wildlife, physical space and bliss was very strong. My notes say things like “epic, full of nature”, “rattle (monkey sounds)”, “flutes gorgeous, beats tough, transcendent”. I did get the idea of a new place, of women supporting women, of rejecting old systems (in Tabula Rasa, she sings: “break the chains of the fuck-ups of our fathers”). There’s also – excitingly – strong hints of a new lover (Blissing Me: “I fall in love with his song”). And the feeling of the end of a difficult relationship, of moving forward (Sue Me). Though I may well be being too literal. Björk laughs when I quote lyrics at her, and ask her about her love life”.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Santiago Felipe/One Little Indian

When it came to the posing of love and prolificacy in the dating scene:

Oh for me, that word is so ridiculous!” she says. “In Iceland, especially in my teenage years, we didn’t date. You just went out and you got plastered and you woke up the next morning with someone and… And you married them! I definitely don’t date, like go to a restaurant all dressed up..In a recent interview, Björk called Utopia “my Tinder album”. “Yes, because I thought that was hilarious, but obviously I would never be able to be on Tinder.” What she’s talking about, really, is fresh experiences with new people: the excitement and sexiness and clumsiness of those encounters. “People trying things out, and rejection, both ways. We all have chapters, and then when you start new chapters, it’s like: ‘I’m walking down the same streets I’m always walking down, I’m wearing the same clothes, but it feels like I’m on Mars.’ In the best possible sense, but also in a scary sense. I missed being this emotional explorer, I enjoy it.”

The reason I have so eloquently – and semi-legally – cribbed from these interviews is because they show how prolific, captivating and compelling Björk is – and the fact I will never get a chance to interview her! I would urge people to investigate the interview conducted between Björk and Mary Anne Hobbs - that clearly shows mutual affection and trust. It is a candid and imaginative discussion that reveals a lot of things we did not know about Björk.


IN THIS PHOTO: Mary Anne Hobbs/PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Lewis

That should – if you read the full interviews; the others conducted around this time; the one she gave to Hobbs on BBC Radio 6 Music – all the information and revelation you require! So, then; why is Utopia going to be the album to rule 2017?! It might seem flippant saying “Because Björk made it, dumb-ass!” so, if you need further rationale; you need only look/listen to how she discusses the record to know how much it means. Few artists afford the media adequate time and attention, Maybe that is because they do not possess the cachet of Björk – and people don’t want to waste a lot of time with someone not worth it – but it is the fact few have anything that interesting to say. Every Björk interview is a transformative experience: it seems Utopia is an aptly-named album that finds the middle-aged artist entering a new phase of life and embrace a positive aesthetic. So many of her peers either bury the bones of disabled love or pen an album filled with acid, toxicity and regret. That is not the case with Björk. Utopia will offer guidance to a flaccid scene that finds love-related records take a negative spin. I mentioned how Björk has reinvented the wheel and pushed boundaries regarding recording and promotion. For Utopia; she is allowing purchasers the chance to pay via ‘cryptocurrency’ – a novel and modern way of buying material – but, looking back; she has always been an innovator.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Santiago Felipe/One Little Indian

Pro Tools have been a backbone of her material and popularised long ago – other artists have followed suit - but Björk was one of the first proponents. Sibelius, a piece of software, was used around the recording of Vespertine. It was used for creating string arrangement and allowed Björk to have an orchestra contained within her laptop. Melodyne is the ruination of Pop records but, for Björk, it was used for pitch-correlation and adjustment – used to enhance and alter a piece of music to spectacular effect. Virtual reality was embraced when promoting Biophillia – although Björk’s dream of a series of 3-D videos came to nothing; it was an idea that intrigued many. I am not sure what techniques and technology-pushing feats we will see in Utopia but, the fact the announcement of the album was done via a primate hand-written note; perhaps Björk is returning to a more rustic and simplistic format – in a way, against the tide of digital suffocating, producing another masterful left-turn! I cannot wait to see the arrival of Utopia because it will be one of the most talked-about albums of recent years. The fact Björk has undergone such an emotional change has seen the timid caterpillar emerge the luminous and radiating butterfly! All of this – the heartache, redemption; the new lease and inspiration – will formulate and conspire on 24th of this month. The quality will be sky-high but it is the story and history of the record that will tip it over the edge. No other album this year has the same flesh and fingerprints as Utopia. I am pumped and prepared for the earthquake-orgasm that is about to befall the world. Not only will the sonic and lyrical elements cause floods and storms: the emotions and infusions from Björk will take her career to new heights. I truly believe, when Utopia hits, it has the potential, its own and real way, to change…



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