Friday, December 29, 2017

RIB's 2017 Album of the Year:
Bjork -- Utopia

No piece of art meant more to me this year — or, arguably, any recent year — than the return of “Twin Peaks.”

That includes the music — spread over three records, it’s a treasure trove of score and songs and sound effects, from Angelo Badalamenti, Dean Hurley and David Lynch to Nine Inch Nails, Sharon Van Etten and Eddie Vedder.

Taken as a whole, it’s my soundtrack of 2017.

But it isn’t my Album of the Year.

When I started my award a quarter century ago — yes, this is my 25th(!) winner — I set two basic rules for myself I reserve the right to change on a whim but have stuck with ever since anyway:

  1. The record must be released during the calendar year.
  2. It must be made up of original recordings — covers, for sure, but not old material or compilations that include the prerecorded work of others.

There was a lot of that in the music of “Twin Peaks.” But because it was curated so well, I was ready to throw those rules right out the window — until the week of Thanksgiving.

That’s when I took a brand new record with me to Mexico City, and during a fabulous family vacation that took us from Frida Kahlo’s house to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, I fell asleep each night to Bjork’s “Utopia.”

I’ve been falling asleep to my 2017 Album of the Year nearly every night since.

It’s been 16 years since I loved a Bjork record like this. “Vespertine” was my top record of 2001, when I’d listen to it sitting in the window of my apartment in Prague, or riding the tram across the Vlatava, watching the snow fall. And hearing the snow fall — in particular the sound of boots making tracks in the soft, thick powder — through my headphones.

On “Utopia,” there are growling wolverines and the bitter leftovers from an devastating divorce. But similar in some ways to “Vespertine,” which wraps you in the warmth of winter, this record is blanketed with tropical birdsongs and flutes; where “Vespertine” sings of secret loves and hidden places, “Utopia” explores sex and romance through the swapping of mp3s and the swiping of apps. Where “Vespertine” pleads for a do-over on its most powerful track, “Undo,” a choir-filled prayer for a new beginning, “Utopia” carefully plots out its do-over, point by point — exploring the messy details of it, from the excitement and fear of letting yourself be vulnerable again to keeping your children from the emotional “luggage” of a custody battle to moments of #MeToo-like empowerment in rejecting the sins of fathers, passed down through generations, to protect our daughters — culminating in a pair of songs as moving as any in Bjork’s incomparable catalogue.

“Music loves too. I am here to defend it,” Bjork states on “Saint,” her voice low in the mix as the swirling sounds overpower her words and attempt to leap from the speakers to form tangible objects in the air. The song distills much of what has come before — the sweetness of “two music nerds obsessing” as they fall in love to a song to the expression of pain and regret in “Sue Me” and “Tabula Rasa,” not to mention Bjork’s previous record, “Vulnicura,” filled with raw anger still being worked out in verse.

At the end of the opening track of one of my Album of the Year runners-up, Mount Eerie’s “A Crow Looked At Me,” Phil Elverum laments the loss of his wife Geneviève Castrée, from pancreatic cancer — leaving behind their 1-year-old daughter -- by asserting that, in the face of real death, all poetry and art loses its meaning. Of course, he’s making a record about death, which neatly contradicts what he says. Bjork’s “I am here to defend it” is more bold — a mission statement from an artist who’s had more time to mourn, and is a little more ready to reconnect to life and love.

Bjork didn’t play The Roadhouse on “Twin Peaks.” But the unique and at times surreal world of this record draws you in. And in the same way Lynch embraces the comic and the dramatic in the same moments, so does “Utopia.” The epic, nearly 10-minute “Body Memory” explores her deep relationship to nature, but starts off both by making fun of it and exalting it:

First snow of winter
I'm walking hills and valleys
Adore this mystical fog!
This fucking mist!
These cliffs are just showing off!

Then the body memory kicks in
I mime my home mountains
The moss that I'm made of
I redeem myself

And then there’s the stuff that maybe just works on that “Twin Peaks” plane only for me, but is no less a part of the record’s story in my mind. When Björk sings, “Hold fort for love” on the closing track, “Future Forever,” it’s again the proclamation of a survivor, coming back to life after a loss — or a “Losss,” spelled with three s’s in the title of the astounding Track 8. But when I mishear the lyric, over and over, in Bjork’s Icelandic accent as “Hold fart for love,” the humor does nothing to diminish it. Nor do the bird sounds all over the record — lush and exotic, yes, but still I imagine what it would be like to be surrounded by so many flying creatures, and all the bird shit that would surely land on me.

But that’s love, isn’t it? Opening your heart, getting betrayed, getting shat on, and then, sometimes, at least in those early days of courtship, holding in your gas to make her love you more than you think you might deserve.

On the 2017 Album of the Year, that love — old and new, flourishing and foundering — extends well beyond mere romance.

”Utopia, it isn’t elsewhere,” Bjork sings, as she both laments the state of our planet and longs for better. “It’s here.” Despite another bleak year — after all the shit we’ve been through politically or professionally or personally — it’s here. It’s just that more than ever, we‘re on our own to fight for it.

Past winners:

1993: Counting Crows -- August and Everything After
1994: R.E.M. -- Monster
1995: The Innocence Mission -- Glow
1996: Dave Matthews Band -- Crash
1997: U2 -- Pop
1998: R.E.M. -- Up
1999: John Linnell -- State Songs
2000: Radiohead -- Kid A
2001: Bjork -- Vespertine
2002: Wilco -- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2003: Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- Master and Everyone
2004: Wilco -- A Ghost is Born
2005: Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois
2006: The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife
2007: Radiohead -- In Rainbows
2008: Shearwater -- Rook
2009: Animal Collective -- Merriweather Post Pavilion
2010: Laura Veirs -- July Flame
2011: PJ Harvey -- Let England Shake
2012: Animal Collective -- Centipede Hz
2013: Mogwai -- Les Revenants
2014: Sun Kil Moon -- Benji
2015: The Tallest Man On Earth -- Dark Bird is Home
2016: Bon Iver -- 22, A Million