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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Another journey into Björk's world of supernatural sound

Ahead of her ninth album Utopia, we applaud the Icelandic pop queen’s ambition

The ‘Björk Digital’ exhibit at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, uses virtual reality technology to enhance the artist’s music. Redferns / Getty
The ‘Björk Digital’ exhibit at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, uses virtual reality technology to enhance the artist’s music. Redferns / Getty

No mainstream musician has embraced the boundless, barrier-busting 21st century with anything approaching the fever or flair of Björk (if you can call her ‘mainstream’). The Icelandic singer-songwriter has the talent which makes divisions between disciplines seem a most flagrant shade of passé.

The popstar-turned-multidisciplinary auteur is expected to release a new album, Utopia, next month, and if previous outings are anything to go by, it will be far more than a mere set of songs.

Preparing her ninth studio work, the ethereal polymath has moved squarely beyond the realm of simply recording albums and performing songs live – her previous two releases were accompanied respectively by a virtual reality exhibit that toured art galleries around the world, and a series of educational smartphone apps designed to teach children musical harmony and natural biology alike.

While it’s not clear precisely what conceptional fourth walls will be broken by Utopia, the title alone smacks of the lofty, artsy ambition that has made Björk a favourite of both geeks and fashionistas – but not necessarily everyone in between.

In a move so typically Björk it is almost baffling she has not tried this trick before – has she? – Utopia’s most comprehensive promotional preamble to date consists of an interview conducted between the 51-year-old artist and… herself. The result is classic Björk – after umming and aahing for several paragraphs about what her first question to herself should be, she settles on “What is your relationship with flutes?”. Read it at W Magazine.

Aside from the fact that flutes feature in Björk’s Utopia – 12 of them, to be precise a whole flute “choir” – we also have an excellent, mellow first single in The Gate, announced by a fluttering, multi-tracked vocal unravelling a newly “healed” Björk. It sounds like a battle cry following the emotional sledgehammer of 2015’s Vulnicura, which was a bitter, blow-by-blow account of her break-up from her partner of 13 years, American contemporary artist Matthew Barney.

Björk has invariably and enticingly described Utopia – co-produced by Venezuelan electronic artist Arca – as both her newly-single “Tinder record”, and a model “manifesto” in the face of populism, Trump and Brexit.

Such concern for public affairs was squarely absent from Vulnicura, which easily ranks as the most personal work yet from an artist who has made transforming idiomatic diary scraps into prophetic divination a career model. Poised with poisoned darts, ruthlessly aimed at an unfaithful ex, the emotionally exhausting song cycle emerged chronologically arranged and nakedly labelled – tracing a devastating arc from “9 months before” to “11 months after” the relationship breakdown.

At times of personal tragedy, music can play a deeply therapeutic, quasi-spiritual role in the lives of artists and listeners alike, but Vulnicura is destined to be remembered as more than just another break-up album. Rather than taking a step back following such a stark portrait of loss and betrayal, she followed her pain into the technological ether.

Debuted 18 months after the album’s release, Björk Digital is a virtual reality (VR) exhibit that invites guests to strap on hi-tech headgear and inhabit 3-D visions inspired by several of Vulnicura’s songs and is currently on tour at art galleries around the world. By the end of this month, the show will have visited 13 cities on five continents – but further stints seem unlikely in light of Utopia’s imminent arrival. This is a significantly broader canvas than the eight European cities, plus New York run, which constituted the official Vulnicura concert tour. After 24 years in the limelight, Björk has reached a career chapter where she does not need to show up and perform in front of an audience - instead she can send missionary VR Björks out to do the artsy dirty work.

I recently caught Björk Digital at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB). Arriving for a pre-booked timed slot, our two dozen-strong group was ushered through a series of interconnected spaces, each equipped with VR headsets that brought to life the 360-degree environments which today constitute Björk’s immersive conception of a music video. Sitting on a stool, I dizzily span around while the singer serenaded me from an empty beach with Stonemilker, and from a Tokyo opera house during Quicksand (culled from footage filmed for the world’s first live VR broadcast, no less).

For the queasily surreal Mouth Mantra, viewers inhabit Björk’s stretching, saliva-specked throat, while I’m pretty sure that before the final video, the frenetic assault of Notget, staff told me my goal was to “kill Björk”, as she hovered overhead as an intergalactic invader.

It was an intriguing, disorientating, but only fitfully impressive experience, perhaps let down by technology not quite up to the job. Sandwiched between reverent screening rooms, and Andrew Thomas Huang’s comparatively tame two-screen, 2-D Black Lake video installation, the sum experience fell somewhere between a tech demo, art exhibition and a listening session.

The final room was set aside to commemorate the even-more-ambitious technical conceit of Vulnicura’s predecessor, 2011’s Biophilia – an album with rather more than the break-up blues in sight. Inspired by the singer’s fascination with the natural environment, Biophilia – named after an antiquated term popularised by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm to describe the biological drive toward self-preservation – was allegedly the first “app album” to be conceived.

For Björk Digital, rows of devices allow visitors to experiment with the 10 educational apps which accompany each song, while a looped documentary flits between David Attenborough conversing with the star and footage showcasing how the apps have been used across classrooms in eight countries, as part of the Biophilia Educational Programme, teaching 4,500 children a mix of music, technology and science.

Today, Björk doesn’t just haunt earphones, or even our smartphone app store – her work is invading the physical space of art galleries and classrooms alike.

A higher-profile precedent was set when Björk was parachuted into the gallery world with 2015’s self-titled retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – a notorious critical turkey invariably dismissed as a “fiasco” (The Guardian), “ill-conceived disaster” (The Atlantic), “discombobulated mess” (New York magazine) and simply “bad, really bad” (Artnet News), inciting bile-soaked calls for museum director Klaus Biesenbach to be sacked.

Yet somehow, throughout the cyclone of outrage, Björk herself remained blissfully resistant from harm. Her reputation as a musical genius, artistic chameleon, authentic eccentric and all-round superhuman creative force was completely immune from the fallout of the exhibition which, truth be told, I rather enjoyed.

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I relished the way each room was dedicated to a single album, thereby elevating mere records into monumental chapters, consecutive artistic reinventions triggered with relevant headset music as you crossed the thresholds. The much-derided, infantile narrative from Icelandic poet Sjón, about a small girl navigating volcanoes, did little to hinder my enjoyment of hearing music I already loved, surrounded by the iconography associated with it.

Rather than the conventional curational survey of touring blockbuster rock exhibits, such as Saatchi’s Rolling Stones show Exhibitionism and the V&A’s David Bowie is – essentially epic depositories of curios and momentoes, like a huge, moveable Hard Rock Café – MoMA’s Björk felt like a work of art; yes, a “journey” even, bathed in its own flawed, human halo.

Numerous essays can be, and no doubt have been, written, pondering just what makes Björk’s music so inimitable and her brand so untarnishable. Those notoriously restless ears are integral – a devoted musical omnivore, Björk can talk fluently about contemporary classical and hip-hop alike. But crucially, she dismisses most rock music, eschewing guitars completely since her early days fronting The Sugarcubes, to embark on her never-ending quest for fresh combinations of sounds.

Clearly, superstardom helps – while other singer-songwriters have embraced electronica with parallel pace and daring, few have enjoyed the same resources of public support – yet Björk’s greatest blessings are a merry mix of both nature and nurture.

Björk’s classical background and knowledge of musical theory offer her compositions infinitely more interesting harmonic and rhythmic dimensions than the average pop composer flirting with beats, while the fluke of her singular vocal chords – capable of that primal wail which can flirt from fragile to furious with unmistakable fervour – is an undeniable, immutable gift. Multiplied in cohorts with an unfiltered approach to lyric-writing which borders on naïve, Björk’s music is often as emotionally consuming as it is technically fascinating.

Some of this charismatic candour risks being lost as Björk follows her technological muse ever-deeper down the rabbit hole. For all the eccentric intrigue, neither snazzy apps nor VR headsets are yet capable of conjuring the heart-racing jolt of simply sitting and listening to, say, Hyperballada portrait of depression as poignant as any ever written.

Hovering ahead of the curve appears to be Björk’s comfort zone, and we can be certain that by the time the tech catches up, her boundless ambition will have taken Björk somewhere else entirely.

Utopia is scheduled for release in November