In Brief: Björk’s vision outstrips her execution once again. Nevertheless, Biophilia is still quite fascinating.
It’s amazing how quickly I went from deriding Björk for being the cuckoo chick with the nails-on-chalkboard vocals and bizarre enunciation, to becoming curious about her music upon the release of Volta, and declaring her as one of my all-time favorite female artists by the end of that same year. Sometimes context is everything. When all you know of an artist has to do with the media commenting on her temper and her interesting fashion choices, and your only attempt to explore her music just so happened to be her worst album (the almost exclusively acapella project Medúlla), it can be difficult for that artist to gain traction. But Volta had its share of catchy, beat-driven songs that served to open my mind, making it easier to digest her past work, or at the very least understand where she was coming from without having it all go through the filter of media voices who find her to be an easy target. I’ll admit – even now that I’m a fan of Björk, it can be fun to participate in the joking around about how weird she is. But it’s the same tendencies that sometimes keep me at a distance from her work, that also lead me to admire it. She may be hit and miss, but she’s also carved out an unclassifiable genre for herself, a style which morphs and changes on every album in ways that put even some of my favorite musical chameleons to shame. Even when a song or most of an album doesn’t “work” for me, the inspiration behind it can still be downright fascinating, and this increases my respect for her as an artist even if it doesn’t always increase my enjoyment.
It’s good that I’ve come to understand Björk on these terms before diving into her latest album, Biophilia. In many ways, this new project – quite possibly her most ambitious one yet – is the perfect example of a fascinating inspiration with a rather puzzling implementation. Starting from the notion that nature and machinery are inextricably intertwined, Björk sought to depict our love affair with technology on an album that quite often uses instruments which were built from scratch (or at least cannibalized from other instruments) solely to support the songs. In some ways it’s the logical extreme for what a musician can do to express herself as an artist, because she’s seeking out new sounds that the conventional instruments available couldn’t give her, which required a lot of collaboration with other musicians, and even scientists and engineers to pull it off. But that’s not where the stroke of mad genius ends. Biophilia was conceived to be the world’s first “app album”, with each song corresponding to a sort of mini-game that can be played on the iPad (or iPhone or whatever Apple device you’ve got in your hands), so that meant that she also had to collaborate with visual artists and programmers. This makes Biophilia an entire little universe unto itself (quite literally, if you look at the “mother app” that hosts all of the other ones), but it also has the unfortunate side effect of making the music not feel as logical or complete on its own.
Thus, reviewing Biophilia is a bit of a challenge for this listener. I tend to feel that an album should stand on its own, making a statement that is complete within itself, one that can certainly be enhanced for the extra-curious diehard fans who don’t mind seeking out the bonus features and Easter eggs, but that can be primarily enjoyed simply by listening to it. Biophilia certainly does have its share of beautiful songs that bring to mind the snowy, delicate textures of Vespertine (my favorite Björk album), and a few of them are rhythmic and boisterous enough to compare favorably to Homogenic (the high water mark for a lot of Björk fans, and my personal second favorite). Combine those two polar extremes with some outlandish sounds that you’ve never even heard from Björk before, and you get an experience that is sonically fascinating, if not particularly cohesive. But really understanding the concepts behind these songs and the relationship between nature and technology that some of them are trying to get at, at least for me, isn’t possible from just listening to the songs and reading the lyrics. There’s a lot of fascinating literature about the making of Biophilia, and some of the apps look like they’re quite fun (though I question their replay value since many of them are open-ended without the sort of immersion you’d normally expect from a game on an iDevice). But having to dive into these to understand Biophilia feels a bit like needing to watch the behind-the-scenes featurettes on a DVD just to understand a movie. It helps, but it shouldn’t be a necessary part of the experience.
For this reason, I’ve decided to review Biophilia as a musical project unto itself. This seems fair, since the apps are sold separately anyway and they are part of a larger overall experience. While I applaud Björk for thinking outside of the audio-only box with this one (and she’s done this quite a bit already with some of the fascinating music videos and live show experiences she’s put together), I still feel that the audio is the centerpiece and that it should be able to stand up on its own without the extra bells and whistles.
We begin with a song that examines the moon’s appearance, as seen from the Earth, illuminated by the sun. These lunar cycles are (apparently) represented by different melody lines played on a harp-like instrument, from what I’m assuming must be a flat “new moon” to the layered, melodic climax of the “full moon”. The mood is intimate, much like a good Vespertine track, with Björk doing the usual self-backing vocalist bit to sound like a motherly, nourishing choir filling the Earth with her goodness. Despite all of these beautiful elements, the song kind of meanders along, possibly due to its odd rhythm (5/4, I think) which is plucked out with no syncopation whatsoever, making it feel like a standard 4/4 that just shifts at unexpected intervals. It’s quiet yet complex, much like a song by Joanna Newsom. (And I never could get into Joanna Newsom, despite recognizing that she is a ridiculously talented woman.) Björk’s lyrics, about taking risks and failing and starting over and learning how to love from the process, are intriguing in that same lovably awkward new-agey sort of way that a lot of her lyrics are. “Best way to start anew is to fail miserably/Fail at loving, and fail at giving/Fail at creating a flow/Then realign the whole/And kick into the starthole.” That’s beautiful and all, but you had me right up until “starthole”. (I’d ask what the heck a starthole is, but instead I think I’ll just hang on to my ignorance and start using it as an insult.)
It’s hard not to think of “Jóga” when I listen to this song. Not because one copies the other, but because they are thematically similar – both in terms of their solemn, stately opening verse that suddenly collides with electronic noise, and in terms of a lyric that focuses on the joy of the unexpected. “Jóga” found Björk comfortable in a state of emergency; here she expresses that she is “craviung miracles” and asks whether she does this too often. (If you’re Björk, I don’t see how you could not crave the sort of creative spark that propels her art, so it’s a good question.) Even though this one takes its time to get going, it’s pretty fascinating for its combination of rigid organ tones with the unexpected metallic buzz of a Tesla coil, which easily creates a vision of lightning flickering across the sky. Only Björk could create something so beautiful from the idea of a person getting shocked by electricity. My only real complaint here is that the song feels like it’s just hitting a climax when it stutters to a close, the Tesla coil sounds becoming more low-pitched, drawn out, and unintentionally inviting us to make fart jokes. No pun intended, but this should have ended with more of a bang.
I like it when my personal favorites just so happen to line up with the powers-that-be at record labels who choose what singles to release. In Björk’s case, that may be due to the simple math that a song without a beat doesn’t stand much of a chance on the charts. That cuts out at least half the album, right there. And while the lush, Vespertine-styled stuff certainly has its merits, I’m feeling the Homogenic stuff a bit more on this album, and this track is a fine example of how that album’s harsh electronics can work together with Biophilia‘s fetish for Frankensteined instruments. Whatever’s getting banged on to create the main melodic riff of this song, it sounds an awful lot like a cross between a music box and someone banging spoons on water glasses. It’s quite addictive, especially with the hip-hop/IDM-styled rhythm that gradually starts to creep in underneath it. Björk’s analogy takes the strange, slow growth of crystals and the harmonic properties that they contain, and draws a parallel with the human heart and its need to resonate with others. (Did I mention that I love the way she trills her R’s? (“With our hearrrrrrrrrrts, we chisel quarrrrrrrrrrrtz.” It’s cute, even if she’s pronouncing it like “quarts”.) With this song, she creates one of the album’s most recognizable hooks – it’s one of the few places where I never find myself waiting for her to get to the “good part”, because I love the verse and the chorus equally (with my only real complaint being the strange disconnectedness between the two, as if she ran out of ideas, paused to collect her thoughts, and then just jumped back into the chorus by default). Of course, there still is an amazingly good part that I do find myself looking forward to, which is possibly my favorite moment on the entire album. The robotic rhythm of the song just can’t contain itself any more, and it completely takes over, going into a manic fit of drill-n-bass that absolutely pummels the ears at the end of the song.
This might be total mood whiplash after the frenetic workout of “Crystalline”, but here I think we’ve got an excellent example of how Björk can work wonders with an arrangement that relies only minimally on rhythm, emphasizing a gentle tapestry of sound instead. Between the horns and the gliding “aaaaaaaah”s provided by the backing vocals, this reminds me of a happy medium between Volta‘s ballads and some of the less extreme moments on Medúlla (think “Oceania”). Mercifully, Björk has reigned in her tendency to wander about melodically with no real structure in sight when her songs get slow, and she’s provided one of her most focused, elegant ballads, bridging together several different creation myths with the currently accepted notion that the universe began with the big bang, all of this culminating in a song that pays tribute to the “music of the spheres” by looking up at the starry sky and wondering how it all became to be. Everything in this song feels grand and distant, from the muted crashing of cymbals to the deep bass that softly bumps about, giving the song just barely enough of a sense of rhythm without drawing attention to itself. Even when all of these elements slow down and melt together near the end of the song, it doesn’t feel gimmicky or tedious – instead you can picture those heavenly bodies whirling about, reducing in speed from the timelapse animation we’ve been watching to their true slow trek across the cosmos – which of course is actually incomprehensibly fast, but just covering so much distance that it would all appear motionless to the mind’s eye. Man, listening to this song makes me want to go visit a planetarium or something.
5. Dark Matter
This song is sort of like Björk’s equivalent of “Treefingers”. (You know, the much-maligned filler track in the midst of a Radiohead album that otherwise generates a lot of critical praise.) It’s an “instrumental”, though not in the conventional sense of leaving out the vocalist and giving the players a few minutes to shine. You really have to stretch the definition of “instrument” to its most avant-garde conclusion to make this track qualify, because it needs to include the human voice (well duh, Björk already tried that for an entire album), and the cold, persistent hum of a computerized-sounding organ tone that appears to change at random, irrespective of rhythm or really anything outside of perhaps a random number generator. “Deterministic music” is the technical term here, I believe. It sounds like the intent was just to let a program make random, ambient noise for about three minutes, then let Björk spontaneously sing along to it (which may sound like it has actual words, but she’s pulling a Sigur Rós and singing total gibberish here), and then finally to loop several takes of her singing back on one another to create a trance-like mood. I don’t hate it – it’s way less obnoxious than about half the tracks on Medúlla. But since it’s one of merely ten tracks on the album, it feels like it’s taking up space that a more deserving song could have filled.
Speaking of taking up space… yikes. A good six minutes right smack in the center of the record are occupied by this hulking behemoth, this nightmare of a song that sounds like what might happen if a pipe organ came to life and decided to stalk you through a dark forest. It’s very “soundtracky”, in the sense that its rhythm shifts and swells to match the intended level of tension, the organ notes quite suddenly multiplying and speeding up at a few urgent junctures, which I guess is meant to represent the way that DNA multiplies and propagates itself through the generations. Fascinating idea for a song, but horrible execution. The thing just lurks and lurks on and on, only starting to fall into some semblance of a grove when wobbling electronics break in midway through. Even then, whatever coolness factor it might win from the unlikely combination of instruments doesn’t linger for too long, leading us to a false ending which is unmercifully followed by another fit of organ madness, then another false ending, then… oh my God, it still isn’t over?! I hear there’s an uncut seven-minute version of this one floating around, which is really scary when you realize that this was the version Björk came up with after having to edit herself for time.
Slipping back into the realm of the marginally sane now, I find myself lulled into a false sense of security by this sweet lullaby, which combines subtle, syncopated bass with the exotic melody of a hang drum and a similar sort of crystalline clanging sound to what we heard in, well, “Crystalline”. Here it’s a little more loose and unhinged, rattling about and eventually infecting the song, which is appropriate, since it’s about the unintentionally abusive relationship between a virus and cells. The virus feeds off of the cell, which hosts it even though it means the death of the cell. The virus just wants to be fed, possibly not realizing the damage its multiplication will cause. Just as “Crystalline” emphasized harmony, this one emphasizes destructive dissonance, yet it does so in an alarmingly gentle way. Björk’s sweet cooing makes the virus sound like the cute, innocent-looking ex-girlfriend who you now know to be ax crazy, but who would never give you the satisfaction of demonstrating her insanity in public. It’s such demented and beautiful song that I can’t help but fall in love.
I can’t even hazard a guess at what sort of instrument is being used to create the minor-key, fatalistic melody that gives this song such a sense of serious gravity. Like much of the album, it’s some sort of melodic percussion instrument, maybe a more metallic version of a vibraphone or something that resonates and warbles when you send soundwaves through its pipes? It sounds pretty awesome, though, like the soundtrack to some sort of foreign, disorienting ritual. This song is similar to “Virus” in that it explores a relationship between a host and an invader, in this case the female of a species and her role in the brutal, unforgiving animal kingdom. Her “sacrifice” is that she must play host to the offspring of an unwanted suitor, her entire life changed by a chance encounter in the wild when she had her guard down. Björk seeks to honor her dignity in choosing to give her life to nurture that offspring, while at the same time expressing some discomfort with the role that nature has thrust upon her. The end of the song seems to imply some sort of a choice, perhaps implying that the animals are actually humans or will otherwise evolve into something civilized: “Tell her that you love her. Your generosity will show in the volume of her glow.” It’s a lovely, idealistic moment that depicts the two genders uplifting and celebrating each other, though I’m pretty sure my cat still couldn’t care less about it.
9. Mutual Core
After “Crystalline”, it’s a close race for second in terms of my favorite tracks on this album. But this one just might have clinched it. Strangely enough, I was completely indifferent to it at first, thinking I’d heard one too many disjointed organ melodies with Björk singing over them, unconcerned with traditional song structure. Thankfully this one has an even bigger climax than “Thunderbolt” to build up to, and once it gets there, it sounds downright bad@$$. The electronic rhythm gets amped up almost to machine-gun levels of excitement, as Björk gets feistier than we’ve heard her get for the entire album thus far, describing the clash between her and a difficult lover as if it were a volcanic eruption. She’s speaking up, finding her voice: “You didn’t know I had it in me.” It’s a pretty clever metaphor, and the quiet, slow-moving verse is an important part of it, depicting two people as tectonic plates grinding against each other, one trying to force the other one underneath, and the resulting earthquakes and general chaos causing the very molten core of the Earth to spew out between them. You can hear the dark, looming bass notes rolling beneath the ground, the tension waiting to burst and create new islands and continents above the face of the barren sea. (Given that Björk is from Iceland, it’s a fittingly patriotic analogy that might also explain a lot about her as a person.)
Biophilia closes with a thematic bookend to match the way that “Moon” opened it. This time, the emphasis is on the direct relationship between the Earth and the sun, with the seasons changing due to nothing more than a shift in the angle with which the sun’s rays hit its surface. (Which is fascinating, when you stop to think about it, and clearly Björk did.) The mood is all stark and snowy, with stray notes plucked out on some sort of pendulum contraption that, if I understand it correctly, is operated by gravity. That might help to explain the apparent randomness of its melody, though it does space out the notes evenly and there are repeating portions. Just nothing memorable that I can really grab on to, in terms of either the instrumental melody or Björk’s vocals. There’s passion in the volume of it, and it’s got an ancient, otherwordly air to it that makes me think it must have been recorded on some far-off mountaintop in Tibet. But there’s no real sense of climax or completion here, it just plunks on and on until its unresolved ending. The lyrics are abstract poetry, at least clear enough to leave us with the notion that “You are a light-bearer, receiving radiance from others”. But on a musical level, it’s as unsatisfying of an ending as “My Juvenile” was on Volta – it’s like blindly wandering through a dark mist that never gives way to the light of day.
I suppose a mixed bag is what you’re going to get when you leave elements of the music you’re creating up to nature. Fortunately Björk has her fair share of “Aha!” moments here, and that makes stumbling through the more awkward moments worthwhile in the end. If you’re deeper into the science or the music theory or the avant-garde musical ideas as an end unto themselves, then you will likely get a lot more out of Biophilia than I did. Ditto for those willing to invest the time and extra cash into exploring the apps. I enjoy a good two-thirds of it solely as music without any other forms of multimedia to support it though, and for a Björk album recorded after the 90s, those are actually pretty good odds.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Dark Matter $0
Mutual Core $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.