The breakup album is one of the most common and successful tropes in music, but how does an artist follow it up? Looking back on the 21st century’s best breakup albums, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern: Kanye followed his dark, career-shifting “808s and Heartbreak” with his bombastic commentary on celebrity “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Bon Iver followed his tenderly barren “For Emma, Forever Ago” with his brilliant self-titled sophomore effort, a slightly brighter folk abstraction with mild electronic experimentation, and Coldplay followed the criminally underrated “Ghost Stories” with the criminally overrated “A Head Full of Dreams,” a purposeless celebration shamelessly launching itself into the Billboard Hot 100.
Clearly, where these artists are united by the breakup album trope, they are distinctly separated by their follow-ups. For an already unpredictable artist, this made predicting Björk’s next move following her stunning 2015 breakup album “Vulnicura” nearly impossible.
Björk, Iceland’s eccentric dabbler in electronic, trip-hop and classical music, has returned less than three years later with her ninth LP “Utopia.” It strives to be the most reflective breakup album follow-up in recent memory, and in many ways it succeeds: The structure of the record is fascinating, and Björk’s lyrics and singing are more powerful than ever. Where this album falls disappointingly short is in the music’s failure to support the messages Björk delivers — the songs don’t do their themes justice.
Structurally, “Utopia” is captivating. Each song presents a different perspective of love, anecdotal or thematic. “Arisen My Senses” and “Blissing Me” tell stories, respectively, of experiencing a first kiss with someone and falling in love with someone through music. They’re two fantastic vehicles of emotion and romantic rebirth, a bold declaration of doubtful hope.
“The Gate” is a powerful portrayal of Björk’s transformation as she learns to use her heartbreak as a path to love: “My healed chest wound / transformed into a gate / where I receive love from / where I give love from.” The “chest wound” is a direct callback to “Vulnicura” and serves as a shockingly explicit reference to that breakup album. The rest of the new album follows suit, each song exploring a different angle ranging from online dating to child custody to music itself, featuring some of Björk’s best lyrics like “Googling love” and “He’s left with loving what he lost / more than what he has.”
With such impactful lyrics, it is agonizing how unsupported they are by the music. Björk has remarked in several interviews how starkly happier this music is than that of “Vulnicura,” but that is not what “Utopia” presents. “Arisen My Senses,” the nature-focused title track, and “Tabula Rasa,” Björk’s blessing of the next generation of love, are the only songs here that can remotely be considered cheerful. Not that the songs need to be happy — these themes are riddled with mixed emotions of doubt and hope — but most of these songs’ moods reflect neither Björk’s proclaimed happiness nor their lyrics, resulting in a confusing trio of purposes.
Take lead single “The Gate,” for example: its deeply unsettling electronic swirls of woodwinds and hauntingly layered vocals are dark and stunning, but how does this unsettling mood even slightly reflect the song’s theme of rediscovering and opening oneself up to love through heartbreak? Shouldn’t Björk be celebrating this self-transformation? Because it sure doesn’t sound like it. Most of “Utopia”’s other songs offer similar contradictions, and while sonically this album glimmers with birdsong and flute symphonies, the music is put to waste on songs that beg for different contexts.
Of course, there is so much to discuss about any Björk album, and “Utopia” is no exception: Her voice here is as personal and close as ever, the electronics as elevating as they have been since her 1997 masterpiece “Homogenic,” and the record is accompanied by yet another colorfully beautiful photoshoot. This album is surely worth listening to, as each component is fantastic in its own right. But the issue is that “Utopia” distressingly offers three contradicting albums: one in Björk’s personal description of the project, another in the lyrics and a third in the music.