To many, Björk will always be first and foremost the strange Icelandic lady who wore a swan dress to the Oscars and ‘laid’ an egg on the red carpet. The release of Biophilia most likely won’t change that, but no one can argue against the breadth of her influence when the project is narrated by someone as esteemed as Sir David Attenborough, museums and curators worldwide are practically locked in mortal combat to play host to it, and even the mighty Apple Corp is bending over backwards to accommodate it as the world’s first fully interactive ‘app album’. Who else could stir up such a digital brouhaha and hype of dense scientific and natural history analysis with what is essentially a new pop record? Not Madonna, certainly.
When it comes to Biophilia, ambitious is an understatement. Having spent the past three years carefully piecing the project together with a team of musicians, engineers, app developers and scientific advisers, branching out further from the good old-fashioned CD than ever before with high-concept live shows and educational workshops, it’s crunch time for Björk and for her hungry legions of fans who have been waiting impatiently for four years since the opinion-splitting Volta. ‘Björk does A-Level science’ perhaps isn’t quite what they were expecting, but despite the project’s daunting premise and complexity it’s a relief to see just how easily digestible and immersive the result is.
As an app ‘universe’, Biophilia translates from being a conventional ten-chapter story into a galaxy of individual solar systems, each with different angles and avenues into the respective song to explore, analyse and deconstruct the music and its scientific origins. Throw in a gaming element to each app and it’s impossible not to find yourself engrossed and appreciating Björk’s work on levels you never knew you could. But does it work independently of the apps as a standalone collection of songs? Absolutely, but not without some eleventh-hour tweaks.
Perhaps wary of the fact that her approach to Volta (using minimal production in the studio in order to embellish it live) wasn’t a complete success, and fearing that the songs sounded too flat for experiencing beyond the app interfaces, Björk whisked long-time collaborator Leila Arab to Iceland to flesh out the already completed album. It was a risky move, but it seems that it was yet another home run for her intuitive gift. Though it’s no less experimental and bewildering than any of her previous albums, Biophilia is simply an exquisitely carved, landmark piece of music.
Recalling the tender glories of Vespertine, thanks in part to the welcome return of harpist Zeena Parkins, the deceptively simple-sounding opener ‘Moon’ ripples with harp scales in unusual prime-number time signatures and buried, sparse sub-bass. Here Björk ponders warmly how the lunar cycle influences life on Earth, easing the listener gently into the Biophilia experience before lightning literally strikes with the tense ‘Thunderbolt’, where the (surprisingly subtle) Tesla coil-generated bassline buzzes around the exceptional beats, organ and choral arrangements as Björk extends to some of those heroic notes she’s famous for.
With a more bottom-heavy bassline and glossier, extended breakcore finale, lead single ‘Crystalline’ is the first song to sound noticeably different from its first incarnation. Where the original was a grower, the album version is a warmer and more appropriate conduit for the collection as a whole, leading nicely into a new version of the epic ‘Cosmogony’, which audibly glows swathed in its new, additional blanket of choirgirls. Love song ‘Virus’ remains the only other familiar track on board, its delicate structure preserved from the app as Björk pays homage to the pure instinct of her “sweet adversary” as it destroys her from the inside.
From then on it’s a trip into the unknown. Never one to knowingly make things an easy ride, Björk harks back to the more experimental moments of Medúlla with the deeply abstract ‘Dark Matter’, full of wordless wails and eerie pipe organ sounds that seem intent on dividing opinion. The terrifying ‘Hollow’ follows with an ode to ancestral DNA traits which avoids an incongruous falter into avant-garde with a remarkable glitch-riddled breakbeat that’s light years ahead of even the most established IDM producers, even prompting a rare moment of hip shaking during its abstract testimony.
‘Sacrifice’ offers perhaps the most surprises on Biophilia. A delicate narrative love song pushed along by the otherworldly sound of the pin-barrel harp (or ‘sharpsichord’), the sleepy close of the original version is turned completely on its head with a dense hit of razor-sharp IDM beats. It shouldn’t really work with the tender confessionals, but somehow takes the song to extraordinary new heights without ever compromising its beauty.
Penultimate track ‘Mutual Core’ rightly earns its place as Björk’s new track nine, a place reserved on most of her albums for the “angry” song. While it’s perhaps difficult to get especially riled up over the tectonic shifts happening constantly beneath us, Björk opts for musically enacting the years of a volcano’s dormancy through sluggish, mournful verses of deep organs and deliciously gooey sub-bass before a sudden rise of scales from the choir ushers in a savage eruption of dub-tinged breakcore beats, which subsides just as instantaneously to allow the dust to settle.
Closing as tenderly as it began, Biophilia departs with the sparse, minimal ‘Solstice’. Gravity harps sway and pluck at random with their slightly more nasal sounding harp strings as Björk aligns the solar system with her thoughts. While this may be the biggest creative misfire on the album (a gravity harp by any other name would still be a harp, and perhaps best appreciated for its creative construction in the flesh), the song itself aptly brings the album to a cerebrally provoking conclusion.
It’s difficult to summarise such a monster-sized project and the songs that make it any more concisely, but it is very easy to be impressed with it all. Any worries about Biophilia being a novelty album have been put forever to bed through Björk’s extra efforts to ensure the recording stands up to the hype around its digital counterpart. As she herself has stated, “It’s a lot easier to just pick up and play, than explain.” And while we can reasonably expect the ‘app album’ to become a watered-down staple format of picture galleries, remixes and behind-the-scenes interviews for all major-label artists in the coming years, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to use such an undefined format in any way better than this, and Björk can proudly own that she has done for the consumption and appreciation of digital music what Radiohead did for its commerce and value.
Where Biophilia truly succeeds though, on any format, is in the ever-present wonder of Björk’s voice. Never taking her focus off the challenges set by the material, she slides between the tender and the epic with a delivery never far from naïve fascination, as though she were a child seeing her first shooting star or experiencing her first earthquake. “We’re on the brink of a revolution,” Sir Attenborough states during the ‘Cosmogony’ app tour, and while the future will be as challenging as it is unquestionably profound, we can thank Mother Nature herself that we have Björk here as it happens, documenting every step of the way through a visionary sound ecology created and informed by music and technology.
[One Little Indian; October 10, 2011]