It gets said all the time these days but really, who else could’ve done this? This, of course, being Biophilia, the latest full-length from Icelandic super-chanteuse Björk. Last we heard from her was four years ago, when her most amiable record yet, Volta, had garnered some talk that her career was finally beginning to wind down. Indeed, Volta featured more high-profile guest spots and co-producers (Antony and Timbaland among them) than on previous efforts, while forgoing much of her bent for the avant-garde (it came on the heels of the very divisive, mostly a capella MedÃºlla), all of which made for one decidedly digestible effort. Had the auteur’s famously spiked edge finally dulled?
Negative. The eighth of her career, Biophilia fits in snugly with the rest of her venerable back-catalog, if for nothing other than continuing her streak of wholly iconic records. Each successive record of Björk’s sets its stage very differently, playing out like a grand culmination of her legacy. Biophilia is no exception, widely-discussed as a 21st century multi-format concept project to be released in the form of music, multimedia, internet, installations and live shows, most notably with an exhaustive, visually stunning iPad app for each of Biophilia‘s 10 songs.
Over the course of several years, Björk worked closely with developers to record the album on custom-made instruments (a pair of musical Tesla coils and a set of four “gravity harps” among them) and software that seek to explore the relationship between nature and technology. Musically and lyrically, Björk looks to biological phenomena to express her usual array of deeply personal themes and musical concepts. For instance, on “Virus”, she likens love’s effect on the human being to the relationship shared by a cell and a virus, employing generative music through a chiming melody line that rapidly divides and multiplies just as a virus would.
Oh yeah, there’s music too. Now, Björk has never quite been the most groundbreaking composer or poignant lyricist. Instead, she defines herself musically through stylistic masterstrokes (like the dissonant, heavy-as-shit bassline that drives “Army of Me”) and lyrical “Björk-isms”. Her unique utility of the English language gives her words a quirky, idiosyncratic edge, allowing lines like “if you forget my name, you’ll go astray/ like a killer whale” to ring somehow striking. Said masterstrokes and quirks are well intact here, as is evident in the asteroid-bass volley of “Mutual Core” and lead single “Crystalline”‘s apocalyptical breakbeat coda.
Biophilia‘s finest moments are its most subtly captivating, many of which are (admittedly) almost forgettable on first listen. The aforementioned “Mutual Core” and “Crystalline” can be assured a spot on any and all future Best of Björk compilations, compelling in how they blend archaic instrumentation with blistering electronica. While “Thunderbolt”, whose rumbling bassline lends Björk’s refrain of “craving miracles” a certain urgency, is another sure highlight, as well. Mid-album centerpiece”Dark Matter” plays like the warped stepsister to Björk’s friend and collaborator Antony’s “Dust and Water”, its unnervingly low drone and a menacing, effected vocal part making for an intriguing addition to Björk’s catalog.
In many ways, Biophilia is both the most conventional and unconventional effort on Björk’s resume. While it’s unlike the majority of Björk’s previous records – in that there aren’t any glaringly obvious choices for a big single (aside from “Crystalline”, maybe?) – it plays best straight through its 10-song cycle, from the tranquil calm of “Moon” down to the soft plucks on the aptly-titled “gravity harps” that adorn album closer “Solstice”. Though Biophilia is hardly easy listening, even by Björk’s challenging, outlandish standards, there’s little doubting it’ll stand as one of the more rewarding albums of her storied career.
Essential Tracks: “Mutual Core”, “Crystalline”, “Sacrifice”