Björk's 2015 record, Vulnicura, was so raw, painful and searching that when it came to performing the last of its shows in Carnegie Hall, New York, she knew she had to move through her grief in order to survive. This meant coming up with, as she has said, a "new manifesto".
That manifesto, Utopia, comes as both a reaction to and a following-on from her last record. Quicksand, the final composition on Vulnicura, provides the thread, "Define her abyss, show it respect, then a celestial nest, will grow above".The song expounds on a need for an equitable future, for "my continuity and my daughters, and her daughters". Utopia builds on this urgent need, as on Sue Me: "Let's break this curse, so it won't fall on our daughter, and her daughter, and her daughter, won't let this sink into her DNA."
The philosophy of Utopia (evolved by someone raised in a country that has the closest thing to equality) underscores the patriarchy at the core of oppression; using anger as a constructive force to forge new possibilities and an acknowledgement that something radical needs to be done. Part of that radicalism is found in the expansive live rendering of Utopia, unveiled last week in Björk's hometown of Reykjavík.
Described as a “dress rehearsal”, the effect is anything but; it is immersive and total. Playing on her ideas of the contrast between dreams and making them a reality, while conveying a sense of paradise through sound, the complexity of the relatively simply titled record starts to reveal itself. Björk’s assertion is that there has to be a way out of pain; that imagination; indeed the ability to even consider a utopia is key.
The Trump factor
She has talked of being further galvanised by Trump’s election, deepening her intention to show that optimism is a choice. Part of this meant going back to her first instrument, the flute, which features heavily on the record, as does the influence of mythical stories from South America to Scandinavia about women escaping violence with magical flutes and children to create their own universe.
Björk manages to navigate a difficult subject with playful intelligence and visionary musicality. Her live show brilliantly marries the record to a complete visual universe that follows a narrative of discovery of utopia, living within utopia, and surviving difficult times in utopia, with an acceptance that no “utopia” is ultimately free from trauma But, as she has previously said, “If you feel this world is not heading the right way, you have to be DIY and make a little fortress.”
This "fortress" evolves Björk's long-held interest in the organic relationship between nature and technology, enlisting coproducer Arca to manipulate waveforms to create birdsong from another world. That birdsong is also the first thing that greets the audience in the venue Háskólabíó, long before Björk takes to the stage, reminding us that Utopia is all around us if we would only lift our heads and listen.
It is a far-reaching experience, folding in various literary and philosophical influences. The use of birdsong brings us back to one of Björk's richest influences: EE Cummings. In 2004's Medúlla, the song Sonnets/Unrealities XI uses a Cummings work that ends with an ear listening out for birdsong, with Björk translating a man's poem to a woman's experience, a perfect example of the flexibility of poetry and of Björk's ability to re-present interesting ideas in a surprising way. She also navigates John Locke's 17th-century harnessing of tabula rasa, or the "blank slate", reaching across centuries to formulate her own utopian vision, to "break the chains of the fuck-ups of our fathers."
There is also another aspect – that the personal is the political, something that Anohni reflected on in the astonishing 2016 record Hopelessness. The connection between Björk and Anohni began over a decade ago, when Anohni (then Antony) featured on Dull Flame of Desire and My Juvenile on the album Volta, with Björk returning the favour on Flétta from Antony and the Johnsons' 2010 record, Swanlights.
On Hopelessness, Anohni posits that the feminine sense of self is connected to the world, whereas the masculine sense of self is separate. This idea blossoms in Utopia. The last song, Future Forever, is a call to action: "See this possible future and be in it/Hold fast for love, forever."
Björk's live vision of Utopia is universe-building, the majestic set a visual representation of nature speaking to technology; there's a rotating mini-stage for the mini-army of flautists, flowers, plants and foliage, and a huge 3D screen for evocative projections, with the space also home to harp, percussion and electronics. It could be underwater, a forest or another planet. It is a moving fresco of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Björk, in her butterfly-as-blossoming-flower dress, a 21st century Titania. She has morphed into "the gate" that she sings of.
Björk seems to suggest that utopia is not something handed to you; it is considered and hard-fought-for. It turns on the concept and experience of loss, as so much great art does, while reaching for something "future forever". As she returns to sing The Anchor Song (Um Akkeri) in Icelandic for her encore, 25 years on, it reminds us that she has been trying to evolve something of a utopia all along. Creating records with one-word titles, steadily unfolding entire universes, which are both inclusive and incredible.