There is a sense now that Björk may have done just about everything. All her solo albums have had a distinctive character, a particular intellectual quality and sense of musical purpose, from Vespertine’s almost paradoxical icy intimacy to the political and personal defiance of Volta. Perhaps the shock of the new has now diminished for Björk’s long-term admirers. Where else could she possibly go?
Biophilia is a great deal more than just an album, however. It is a wide ranging multimedia project incorporating a series of apps (one for each song), a dedicated live show and an educational programme. Believe it or not, Björk has not quite succeeded in getting there first with this. The recent debut solo single from Gwilym Gold came in the form of a downloadable piece of software that ensured the song would never quite play in the same way twice.
Björk’s applications share a similar ambition to make music unpredictable and interactive. In one, listeners attempt to fuse two hemispheres together in order to create chords and another aims to communicate key information about musical scales. Other apps are more concerned with the album’s themes – Hollow features Björk’s face made from a series of DNA strands. Perhaps the most successful aspect of the apps concept is that each song on Biophilia is intended to emphasise a particular musical feature (counterpoint, arpeggios, tempo etc) and that the apps serve to explain this, and to further experiment with the ideas. Biophilia is most interesting in its careful fusion of musical and conceptual ideas.
The recent singles (Nattura and The Comet Song, neither duplicated on the album) have already provided an indication of Björk’s preoccupation with nature, the environment and science. Biophilia takes these notions to frequently ecstatic levels. Throughout, Björk attempts to marry her specific scientific and technological ideas with her musical ones. Crystalline, for example, explores complexity both in musical and physical structures. What could easily have ended up as a sterile academic exercise has, this being Björk, turned out to be an affecting and moving work. In spite of her use of electronic devices, Björk’s music always sounds so vivid, alive and wonderfully human, something emphasised by the recurring heartbeat pulse drum sound heard throughout Biophilia.
It should be stated clearly at the outset that Biophilia does not traverse any radically new musical territory for Björk. There is a sense of individuality in its thematic concerns and in its use of specially constructed instruments, but in essence it feels like a synthesis of Björk’s work thus far (albeit a brilliant one). It is an album that would be very easy to take for granted. For the most part, this is once again Björk at her most intimate, closer to Vespertine or Medulla than the slightly overcooked Volta. At times, particularly in its closing stages, it is actually more reminiscent of her soundtrack work, Drawing Restraint 9 especially. This makes the occasional abrasive interjections seem even more violent.
Moon reunites Björk with the unnervingly beautiful harp of Zeena Parkins and with the all-female Icelandic choir with which she toured Vespertine. With Björk and the choir accompanied with disarming minimalism, the focus is placed squarely on her unusual, brave melodies. So much of Biophilia is understated and elegant. The sublime Cosmogny feels like Björk at her most thoughtful, but also at her most brave. For the most part, she avoids resorting to her familiar vocal tropes in favour of a very stark, honest delivery.
Crystalline is Björk at her most familiar and approachable, at least until an imposing stew of off-kilter beats rudely disrupts the song’s flow. It’s an unexpected and disruptive gesture, but not perhaps a particularly novel one. Artists such as Aphex Twin or Kid 606 experimented with this sound many years ago. Indeed, it is arguable that more surprises have emerged from the inevitable glut of remixes that have accompanied Crystalline’s release as a single, not least the contribution from Omar Souleyman.
This is not to say that Biophilia is without its moments of total bravery. Dark Matter, little more than Björk’s vocals, the choir and the customised modern pipe organ, is extraordinary and more than a little unsettling, its melody traversing through a range of unusual and sometimes uncomfortable intervals. The closing Solstice is similarly at once pure and bracing.
There also remains something uniquely rapturous about Björk’s use of language, even including her occasional mangling of English. She seems entirely at liberty to say whatever she feels – there are no inhibitions or restrictions. English – a language so often associated with reserve or diplomacy, always sounds so enticing and odd when delivered in her syntax. On the wonderful Thunderbolt, she proclaims “my romantic gene is dominant and it hungers for union”, another hint back to the candid, sensual reveries of Vespertine. Even the Virus somehow becomes a form of metaphor for sexual congress (“I knock on your skin and I am in”) or desire (“Like a virus, patient hunter, I’m waiting for you, starving for you, my sweet adversary”). It is all gracefully matched by the song’s shifting, insidious tension.
With Biophilia, Björk has deftly avoided many of the dangers inherent in grand conceptual projects. The paraphernalia that surrounds Biophilia does not undermine or diminish the impact of the music, and the ideas, approaches and sounds are all successfully integrated. Whilst the musical content here is unlikely to shock or surprise Björk’s loyal admirers, it sees her continue to pursue her own radical and individual path with unshakeable conviction.
Check back soon for our interview with Björk.