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On Their New Albums, Björk and U2 Offer Utopian Visions for Dystopian Times

But their approaches, and their degrees of success, vary widely.

Björk is all journey, all process, and U2 is all outcome, all destination.
Björk is all journey, all process, and U2 is all outcome, all destination. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images Portrait, Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for The ONE Campaign.

The arch-eccentric song-synthesist Björk and U2, the last of the grand stadium-rock conquerors, seldom seem to have a lot in common. But at the tail end of a dismally dystopian year, a period that’s seen a lot of pop artists at least gesture to the idea of protest music, usually in shades of anger and disbelief, each of these long-standing artists put out collections that argue for the need to rediscover some form of utopian thinking.

As any barstool smart aleck can tell you, the gotcha coiled inside the word utopia is that while it denotes a land without problems, a perfected society, its Greek roots literally mean “no place.” And utopianism really has had no place in Western public fantasy of late. The drive to try to engineer a heaven on Earth was the tragedy of the 20th century, as in communism and fascism (not to mention eugenics, or suburbia). Which has left most of the planet resigned to one flavor or another of market capitalism—even nominally communist China.

The prominent cultural dream worlds have become dystopian in the modest hope that audiences might at least be motivated to stop the world from literally becoming The Hunger Games. But what happens when people stop being able to envision radical positive alternatives to the dominant state of things? Based on recent evidence, you get the hellscape you’ve been expecting. “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse,” to quote a Cold War–era song from that crunchy Christian socialist Bruce Cockburn. With our imaginations constantly tuned into the apocalyptic, maybe we secretly welcome it.

Utopia One Little Indian Records

Yet U2’s Bono has talked about trying to convey the force of “joy as an act of defiance” with Songs of Experience, the long-awaited and quite divisive record the band put out last weekend. And a week earlier, Björk went so far as to title her new album Utopia. If optimism ever was like an emergency, it’s now,” she’s said. Instead of pure fury and pity, she argues, it’s become urgent to put forward an idea of the kind of world people might want instead. But she’s aware of the rank baggage of the word utopia and fully embraces that absurdity: “I kind of like the fact that it’s a cliché … and I like the fact that it has a fascistic, weird, ‘I want the world to be like this’ feeling about it.”

Her album, then, isn’t a detailed blueprint for Shangri-La—songs make lousy policy papers—but an immersion in what it might feel like to form one. Reaching back to her own bohemian upbringing, Björk combines her first instrument, the flute (in buoyant multipart arrangements), with synthesizers and processed vocal parts that likewise are imbued with breath and inflation and ascendance. It is a virtual reality trip through a rainforest on a lawn chair held up by balloons. On its longest track, “Body Memory,” she sings with a famous Icelandic folk choir she was part of when she was 16 while computer voices spit and stutter. It envisions a world in which technology and ecology are not at odds, but partners in a digital-pagan sublime. She is enveloped in birdsong—via archival field recordings and ones from her own hikes—while texting her friends ecstatically and cooing about MP3s. She creates soundscapes in which we can hear those languages as complementary, rather than threatening each other’s extinction. (A society that can invent the iPhone, she’s said, should also be ingenious enough to kick its addiction to fossil fuels.)

The album’s loose narrative goes out of its way to acknowledge difficulty and strife, but it overcomes them with a lush, gorgeous biodiversity of sound—“to leave our defenses and egos behind, the patriarchy, hierarchies, everything, and travel into pure abandon where no one is a victim,” as she’s described her mutual pact with her younger close collaborator here, Venezuela’s Alejandro Ghersi, aka Arca.

On many Utopia tracks, Björk sings lines that split and branch, putting her in duet or trio with herself, while flutes and choirs and waveforms do the same, as if to laugh affectionately over the conceits of individuality and illustrate the malleability of consciousness, if only we would let it be. It reminds me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the mysteries of human desire result in doublings and deceit, transmogrifications and farce, but ultimately the marriage of mechanical town and fairy forest, one in which being earthbound becomes a consummation most divine.

U2, almost by definition, has a shakier sense of the potential ridiculousness of its ideals. And on this album, that makes for a shakier result. As always, though, it is trying hard. (Indeed, that’s a lot of critics’ biggest grievance against it.) I liked their last album, Songs of Innocence, a bit better, for its scrappy evocations of the band’s own coming-of-age in Dublin. But as Bono has explained, this one is about the way that as you grow older, “you realize that the biggest obstacle in the way [of changing the world] is yourself.”

Songs of Experience initially was going to be a more concentratedly personal record. But Brexit, Trump, and the Mediterranean refugee crisis happened during the three years they were recording it, so the band went back and rewrote and rearranged some of the songs, the better to blend their anxieties with everyone else’s. (Also, reportedly for the first time in a long while, to let the songs steep in live rehearsal and performance experience before finalizing them, which is to the album’s advantage.)

Not that Björk and U2 are alone on their utopian paths—there are strains of it on R&B singer-songwriter Miguel’s new album War and Leisure, for example, echoing Prince’s erotic Afro-futurism with images of “pineapple purple skies” that promise “everything’s gonna be all right.” Likewise, saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s revival of the spiritual-jazz sensibilities of John Coltrane and others from the mid-1960s is a utopian counterpoint to the more dystopic bent of his peers in the electronic and hip-hop scenes of Los Angeles—such as Kendrick Lamar, who shows up as a drily sarcastic preacher on U2’s “American Soul” here, repaying his use of that song’s chorus on “XXX,” a far bleaker song about American culture on his album Damn earlier this year.

Still, it’s intriguing to ask why these particular artists are pushing utopian options right now. Each was born into the generational gray zone between those shaped by the disappointed ideals of the 1960s and those who’ve always lived under the unrelenting glare of neoliberalism. (Björk is 52 and Bono 57.) They got their starts in a post-punk period when the term alternative hadn’t yet curdled entirely into a marketing category—Björk’s post-punk band, the Sugarcubes, even toured with U2 for a couple of months in the early 1990s.

My favorite track on Songs of Experience, “Red Flag Day,” reclaims the shouty energy of U2’s early, more ornery post-punk music, in a portrait of a privileged couple trying to recapture their spark on a beach vacation while a family on another shore braces themselves to board a dangerous makeshift raft. Similarly, “Summer of Love” sings of “the West Coast,” suggesting the hippie idylls of 1960s San Francisco, but then adds “not the one that everyone knows”—meaning, instead, the western coast of the Middle East. Its last verse evokes roses sprouting in bomb craters in Aleppo, reminiscent of daisy-in-a-rifle-barrel pictures from Vietnam protests. Some listeners find these juxtapositions crass, but they’re connections that a less gauche, less over-the-top band would never reach for.

Songs of Experience
Songs of Experience Interscope Records

And U2’s world maps, like Björk’s, aren’t proportioned like the ones you receive on American TV. They each came out of no-places compared to the centers of global power—U2 from Ireland, Björk from Iceland. As wealthy pop stars, they aren’t at much personal risk from the fallout of neoliberal inequality and nationalist backlashes. (Indeed, with Bono showing up in the rolls of offshore investors in the Paradise Papers, he may be benefiting.) But still, as cosmopolitans from lands Elsewhere, they retain some perspective on the illusion that political and social manipulators use to put over their self-serving scams, that it’s all a matter of irresistible gravity and inertia, of natural laws. It can’t be any different? Well, it’s different where we’re from.

Both albums also reflect the aftereffects of middle-age crises. Bono, in his liner notes to Songs of Experience, reveals that last year he went through an (unspecified) encounter with his own mortality. And Utopia is an account of Björk’s recovery from the devastation of her divorce from artist Matthew Barney, which she depicted on her last, much heavier-sounding album, Vulnicura. Both albums are sequels, reports from the other side of calamity. Where U2’s diptych references their Christian-mystic forbear William Blake, Björk is counterbalancing her Inferno with a Paradiso.

Those are heady ambitions for pop music, so both U2 and Björk make sure to refer back frequently to the form’s standard lyrical touchpoint: the lexicon of love. The difference in how they do so is key to the gap between their achievements. Björk’s vision of love on Utopia is as a kind of a quantum field that binds everything, but one that’s apprehended in tiny, everyday impulses and experiences of friendship, motherhood, romance, sex, work, conflict, and release. (The nearly 10-minute “Body Memory” catalogs them almost systematically.) The passage between macro and micro requires a certain quality of attention. Though its materials are very different, the album’s approach calls to mind the composer and electronic-music pioneer Pauline Oliveros, who died around this time last year, and her techniques of “deep listening”—of seeking the common resonances in disparate sounds, revealing an interdependent aural ecosystem. Utopia, with its dialectics of dense clusters and sparse sonic clearings, likewise encourages the listener not to try to decode and claim it immediately, but to absorb the music as something emergent, as a dizzy unfolding. Which is not a bad model for love or for hope amid dire circumstances.

U2, on the other hand, cannot resist rushing to conclusions, to drawing morals, to insisting on salvation. It can only see love as eros and agape, a binary between the intimate and the grandly spiritual. Far too often this means the songs build up to encomiums to vacuous universal niceness—the “free yourself to be yourself” chant on “Lights of Home” wincingly recalls 1960s nadirs such as the Youngbloods pep-squadding, “C’mon people now, smile on your brother/ Everybody get together, we gotta love one another right now.” That’s the crypto-fascist, all-citizens-must-be-happy side of utopia Björk was talking about.

Bono has said he was inspired lyrically by advice he was given by the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly, to “write as if you’re dead,” but on the evidence of this album I think he’s taken it wrong: It doesn’t mean to sum up, to make every song a last will and testament, but to gaze on the human struggle with some measure of cool clarity like a tree standing in water, and not to try to ingratiate yourself to the listener. It’s not a mode that comes naturally to U2. Especially after the general outrage the band endured when it deposited Songs of Innocence onto half the world’s nonconsenting computers in 2014, they’ve come back with far too much to prove. As critic Joe Gross has pointed out, it’s obvious even in the overwrought song titles (an underrated skill the band used to excel at). On this album, U2 just can’t stop U2-ing.

For those who love U2 when it’s U2-ing, that may be good news, but these songs don’t so much draw the listener in as hunt the listener down. There’s breathing space in the opening “Love Is All We Have Left,” with its Philip Glass–like pulse and Bono in a quizzical duet with a vocoder, and in the closing “13,” an insightful, affecting recasting of the previous album’s “Song for Someone.” But sandwiched in between is less joy-as-resistance than joy that’s supposed to be irresistible. Most of the songs have their moments, but you can hear all the effort that’s gone into optimizing them for arena yell-alongs—as if the band’s only real faith is that heaven is a place in the floor seats at a U2 show.

It’s tempting to label the dichotomy between U2’s and Björk’s excursions into utopianism: masculine versus feminine, perhaps, or heteronormative versus nonbinary (a realm of identity that Arca explores in some of his own work). It could be U2’s Christian soft-evangelism as opposed to Björk’s Nordic animism. It may be U2’s unwillingness to let go of the 20th-century dogma of rock ’n’ roll, and its insular nuclear-band-family structure, in comparison with Björk’s continual eagerness to explore new sounds and engage new collaborators. But perhaps more crucial is her willingness to giddily abandon the familiar, to risk a forbidding strangeness if that’s where her creative path meanders, while U2 lumbers under its own history, the burden of its loyalty to the idea of itself. Björk is all journey, all process, and U2 is all outcome, all destination. Together their music reminds us of what the previous century proved, that the surest way never to reach utopia is to be certain you already know what it should look like.

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