Review Summary: Far better than anybody had any right to expect.
It's been hard for me not to be really cynical about all the talk that's surrounded Biophilia
for months now. It's seemed at times as though people aren't even talking about a record - for all the hype about apps and iPads and the liberal use of buzz-phrases like 'open-source' and 'interactive', it seems to have been forgotten that Biophilia
is ultimately a pop album first and foremost, and as such nobody seemed concerned about how good it was going to be, as opposed to how inventive or important.
If this had all happened in 2002, immediately after Vespertine
, none of this would be a problem. The stretch between Debut
saw Bjork on a roll where it felt like she could do no wrong, and the quality of this album wouldn't have been in question if she'd done it then. But this isn't 2002, it's 2011, and Bjork has been on a downward spiral for over half a decade now - both Medulla
were albums with an impressive breadth of imagination and a serious lack of impressive execution, records that were much better in theory than they were in practice, that sounded much better when you remembered them than when you were actually listening to them. They had their highlights, sure, but for every "Declare Independence" or "Triumph of a Heart" there were two tracks that were either unforgivably boring or a complete mess. With all the hype about its creation and zero talk about its actual content, how could we expect Biophilia
to be anything other than a continuation of this maximum effort/minimum end product rut she's found herself stuck in?
Surprisingly, it's the optimists that expected Biophilia
to be good despite Bjork's recent track record who were right. Although it's not up to the standard of her classics, this is comfortably her best album since Vespertine
The main reason that this sounds so much better than Volta
is an issue of space. The songs on this album are given room to breathe and develop naturally, which lends them an atmosphere that harks back to Vespertine
and stands in stark contrast to "Earth Intruders", the so-busy-it's-painful lead single from her last outing. Where Medulla
were both very difficult albums to listen to, this is a walk in the park in comparison - it's her most accessible effort since Post
, and is arguably even more of a breeze than that.
That sense of space, crucially, has helped her rediscover the wide-eyed wonder her best work always had. This, more than anything, is what set Bjork apart when she first emerged in the '90s - nobody that she was compared to could match her for child-like amazement at the world, whether it was manifested in the unrestrained joy of "Big Time Sensuality" or the haunting fairytale love story of "Hyperballad". In the age of slackers and sarcasm, nobody was as completely free of cynicism as Bjork, and that made her special; and after that edge looked to have petered away into nothingness, it's back with a bang here. Even though the deeply conceptual nature of each tracks means that her lyrics here are arguably the most obviously odd of the career, the joy at simply being alive shines through. "Mutual Core" might take the movement of the tectonic plates as a metaphor for love, but when she sings 'I gave my all to match our continents' it becomes clear that she's found real emotion in the comparison, in the way a less imaginative, more credulous songwriter never could.
Whether it's a result of those improvements in the songs and the overall atmosphere, or whether it's a result of the collaborators she's brought in I'm not sure, but Biophilia
also impresses in the way that just about every idea comes off. That 'maximum effort/minimum end product rut' mentioned above has been turned on its head - there is less going on here than on your average Bjork album, but it feels like every idea reaches its full potential to make an impact, right across the album. When "Crystalline" crashes into its drum'n'bass rhythm, when the harsh quasi-industrial drums enter on "Mutual Core", the idea of writing a love song from the perspective of a tumour to its host on the utterly beautiful "Virus"; it all works. You will struggle to find an idea anywhere on this album that doesn't come off - even the dependance on the gameleste, a synthesized instrument built to sound like a cross between a gamelan and a celeste that features heavily throughout, makes the album feel ethereal and beautiful rather than repetitive.
Apropos of nothing, "Moon", the opening track on Biophilia
contains the lyric 'the best way to start anew is to fail miserably'. With this album, she proves just how true that is - from the ashes of Volta
, an album that occasionally felt like a career-killer, has come an album of startling beauty, furious invention, and inviting, warm atmosphere. Rejoice kids, Bjork is back!