Review Summary: Music I’d rather admire than listen to.
Bjork has made a career out of breaking barriers. She’s one of only a handful of artists in the last two decades who have truly innovated in popular music, combining elements of dance, jazz, folk, drum ‘n’ bass, synth pop, electro pop, even pop that’s made up of nothing but the sound of her own voice (Bjork pop?) into a style that’s essentially unclassifiable. She’s made a living out of making music that, for all its sheer elegance and beauty, is obtuse, tantalizingly complex, and often difficult to listen to.
Biophilia doesn’t change any of this. In Bjork’s much-hyped album/multimedia project, each of the songs are thematically related to an accompanying iPad app, allowing listeners to interactively explore the theme of the instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. “Virus” explores the “love story between virus and cell” with a video game app that invites players to attack a virus then let it run its course to hear the entire song. “Moon” is composed of repeating melodic cycles, and “Solstice” features overlapping polyphonic chords. It’s a clever, pioneering, and intriguing way to approach music --- not just a concept album, but a concept app as well.
So the question becomes, how do you fairly critique an artist who, despite her pioneering brilliance, has a style that just doesn’t appeal to the masses and has so few creative peers that her work can only be compared to her own past successes? You focus on what matters most --- the music. As a project, Biophilia is a marvelous idea, one that will open doors to creative forms of expression for many other artists, and Bjork is to be admired for that. But taken simply as a collection of ten songs, Biophilia, for all its wondrous sources of inspiration, falls oddly flat.
The album’s production feels precise but remarkably subdued and delicate, especially when compared to the Timbaland beats and raucous brass horns on 2007’s Volta. Songs like “Moon, ”Cosmogony” and “Solstice” are the sort of uneasy lullabies that usually precede nightmares. While built on only a couple of musical elements, “Hollow” is eerily evocative, recalling less a feeling of emptiness and more that of a cavernous space inside the earth, with its spooky, muffled organs crashing down like footsteps on the soil above. Lead single “Crystalline” is a sure highlight, its gentle circular chimes building to a surprise climax that features the legendary Amen Break sample, digitally mutated and macerated into sonic shrapnel.
But a large portion of the album leaves you scratching your head. On “Dark Matter,” Bjork’s choice to use nonsensical lyrics to illustrate the unexplainable nature of the song title’s phenomena feels far-fetched and almost lackadaisical, a bit like a kid turning in a drawing of an invisible castle as her art homework. The elliptical harp melody of “Solstice” aims for wonder and sparse simplicity but ends up feeling downright boring. “Sacrifice” and “Mutual Core” have unexpected tempo changes, but much of the rest of Biophilia moves along at a sleepy, almost monotonous pace. Given the grandiosity and richness of Biophilia’s multimedia layers, many of the songs feel somewhat undersized and undercooked.
Then there’s the eclectic instrumentation. An actual Tesla Coil was used as a musical instrument in the creation of the ominous “Thunderbolt,” providing a a gorgeous rumble as the Icelandic pixie mysteriously coos: “May I/ Should I/Or have I too often now? Craving miracles.” But it feels almost gimmicky when it’s the only element in the song; Bjork could (and has) done better with a couple of keyboards. The “Crystalline” melody is created by a gameleste (a hybrid of a celesta and gamelan controlled remotely by an iPad), but you wouldn’t know it unless I told you. Given the endless possibilities of synthesizer-based music in which almost any frequency and timbre can be recreated, the exotic sources of these sounds feels less like a revelation than a novelty.
The focal point of the Biophilia (and every Bjork album) remains her amazingly powerful and elastic voice, but that’s not going to win you over if it hasn’t done so already. The songs have unconventional time signatures, often lack choruses, and manage to fall into the ever-narrowing, yet awkward blind spot between alternative rock and electronica. That would be fine, if they weren’t so devoid of hooks and similar to the point of being tiresome. Bjork’s best work was always unapologetically experimental, but tracks like “Birthday,” “Hyper-Ballad,” and “Unravel” stuck with you because they were weird, glorious pop songs. Call it TV on the Radio syndrome --- Biophilia remains music that I’d rather admire than listen to.
It’s obvious that Bjork put great care into this project. Biophilia is pristinely recorded and thematically woven together down to the smallest detail. But the songs have fewer hooks, are compositionally less daring and lack the staying power of Bjork’s best work. A project that hopes to deliver on the promise of Biophilia’s impressive presentation and grand conceptual scope quite frankly warrants better songs. In her 90′s heyday, on Debut, Post and Homogenic, Bjork painted a picture of gorgeous sonic surrealism, absolutely destroying musical boundaries in the process. On Biophilia, she sounds like she’s staying inside the lines.