Label: One Little Indian
The fanciful, mercurial iterations of Björk continue unhindered, this time taking the form of Biophilia, her eighth full-length solo release and first in four years, a glittering paean to all life, from the earthly to the interstellar. Thematically, it’s an extension of the broad continuity of concept and poetic-empirical fascination displayed on Homogenic (1997), Medúlla (2004) and, of course, Vespertine (2001). Here though, as elsewhere in her more recent work, most pop sensibilities are subsumed beneath gentle, nurturing waves of geothermal warmth, and resultantly Biophilia becomes sluggish in the final stretch, cramping the eager plenitude of the album’s outset.
Remarkably, however, great effort at adaptation has been clearly made here as much on other albums, as Björk’s sound continues to shift technical and musical underpinnings as the years wear on. Besides her experimentation for the first time with different time signatures and a clear conceptual play in tone and opposition, Biophilia also contains a heavy post-purchase multimedia component involving different apps paired with each song, the album itself having been primarily composed on tablet computer. (And I suppose including a Tesla Coil in the accompaniment to “Thunderbolt” counts as some sort of shift as well.)
Playful and sensuous, precious and dangerous to differing degrees and at differing times, the omnipresent qualities remain on Biophilia also, but are this time tempered by an unusual reticence to “let loose,” to the detriment of the album’s momentum. Meandering tracks such as “Hollow” and “Dark Matter,” dulled by their own plodding method, can be set clearly inside this camp. On the other hand, latecomer “Mutual Core” redeems itself in explosively volcanic outbursts occurring as Björk sings praises of the movement of tectonic plates, rolling an Icelandic “r” or two: “As fast as your fingernail grows/ The Atlantic ridge drifts// …Can you hear the effort?”
As inclusions on Biophilia, “Sacrifice” and “Solstice” are less effective not for their individual qualities but for lack of placement near anything to balance away the starkness haunting them. The latter is nearly a cappella, save the ritualistic plucks radiating outward that give time and cadence to her ever-devastating vocal presence. Of the stronger outings, “Moon” particularly evokes the softer moments of Vespertine, with Björk teasing out notes impossibly far and flipping them at the last moment. “Crystalline” tries to recapture the sweeping pluralism and upbeat mania of “Pagan Poetry” and merge it with the raw beats of Homogenic or Post (1995), and succeeds to an extent despite some clumsy mixing. A love song for contagions, “Virus” meets the criteria for exception best, exuding a confident flair, warmer harmonies and more experimental slant than elsewhere on the record, as well as winsome lyrics and abler production, her vocals coordinated effectively with the muted bowl drums, ringing tones and fleeting harmonies.
Whatever their ilk, the more effective tracks on the album ignite in the fashion most becoming of Björk: shot through with effervescence in the arrangements that have always lent her style its distinctness, but now framed by a more mature, pointed focus. As with natural selection, the change can register as hit-or-miss, and Biophilia sometimes works against its own exuberant intentions. There’s a less-showy control displayed in the album’s first half, neatly translating as outrage (or outrageousness) present in her earlier work curbed by creeping melancholy or violent creation given over to tender-handed uncreation. In either case, it’s a new sonic manifestation for her. Whether this and other elements are an admixture of the snowier, softer parts of Vespertine and the breathy exhilaration of Medúlla or a growing twilight side to her music coming from somewhere else won’t be evident until later, of course, when Björk returns to the studio and makes her next album on whatever newfangled technological doodad we’re using to interface on then.