Review Summary: Björk's ecstatic cry of "what a wonderful world"...
Way back in May, Björk said that she was interested in "sympathizing with sound, how sound moves, the physics of sound, and how notes in a room behave...how they bounce off walls, between objects, and how it's sort of similar to how planets and microscopic things work." Heady stuff, for sure, although this statement of intent endears with the clumsiness of its parallels. She's not entirely wrong, either – sound is created by the propagation of sound waves through mediums, and while high school education has dulled any actual interest in the way things work in the universe, that's a pretty damn cool process. Galactical phenomena may not directly
parallel the movement of sound waves, but hey, they're pretty mind-boggling as well.
And though it sounds puerile, I think that what Björk has done with Biophilia
, her newest and seemingly most ambitious venture, is notable primarily because it forces me to evaluate things on such a basic level. Lunar cycles? Yeah, they're pretty remarkable, especially when presented in the form of evocative, spiritual rebirth imagery. Dark matter? Intoxicating, elusive stuff that disturbs as much as it enchants. DNA? Pretty difficult to wrap one's head around, but Björk keeps it simple and human: "generations of mothers sailing in/ somehow they were all shipfolks."
Pair such idiosyncratic phrasings with a dissonant and irregularly stuttering pipe organ and you've got yourself a bona fide curio, arresting and puzzling in equal measure; "Hollow" is a track inviting wildly varying interpretations. Personally, I find her use of 17/8 and 9/4 to be an eloquent musical expression of the unpredictability and endlessness of DNA strands, which I couldn't pretend to know anything about if I wanted to. That's the educational aspect of the album at work right there, triggering interest in subjects that I never would have expected to be compelled to learn about.
Mind you, it's easy to be skeptical about a project that states, at its outset, "We are on the brink of a revolution that will reunite humans with nature through new technological innovations." But while this may strike some as gross artistic hubris, I can't help but be enamored of Björk's confidence in her vision, which actually isn't as convoluted as Biophilia
's press materials may have you believe. Ultimately, this is a work about relationships – between a virus and its host, between man and nature, between sound and space. And though you may protest, insisting that you just don't care
about Björk's views on how the universe was created, these lofty ideas hit remarkably close to home. "Cosmogony", the song that directly deals with creation, works best as a mission statement for the project; Björk's voice elegantly swims in what is arguably her most immediately melodic statement since Homogenic
, while the song's lush horns represent the curving of orbits and a choir takes the place of solar winds. It all sounds a bit too literal on paper, but it's remarkably convincing in practice. In the past, Björk has given familiar sentiments further layers through her unusual approach to the English language; here, she's doing the reverse, making monumental concepts smaller and more personal. Her reinterpretation of the Big Bang theory as the ultimate creation story is unexpectedly moving, and the seeming naïveté of her statements lend her imagery extra power: "They say: back then our universe/ wasn't even there until a sudden bang/ and then there was light, was sound, was matter/ and it all became the world we know."
This nuance is what elevates Biophilia
from what could have been an overwritten piece of artistic masturbation to the compelling work it is. With all this (admittedly interesting) extramusical hodgepodge cluttering one's perception of the album, it's legitimately shocking how subtle the songwriting and production here are. When things do start to sound slightly messy on "Thunderbolt", the sonic layers mirror lyrical turmoil: "Waves irregularly striking/ wind stern in my face/ thunderstorm come scrape those barnacles off me!"
Even the crashing, 16bit-produced drum'n'bass of "Mutual Core" and infectious first single "Crystalline" feel tightly controlled while still maintaining a sense of cathartic release. As always, this has a direct relationship with Björk's libretto; the coda of the former song is "the sparkle you become when you conquer anxiety"
, while the latter bursts at the seams as that inimitable voice wails, "this eruption undoes stagnation/ you didn't know I had it in me."
For some who have been frustrated with Björk's willingness to plumb the depths of esotericism, this lyric may read as ironic – Biophilia
is, after all, the most minimal album in Björk's discography. But while I will concede that I am predisposed to admire and give a small critical pass to any artistic statement that has the nerve to go big
, I think this sentiment merely represents a keen awareness of the music being made across these ten tracks. Because it's clear that the minimal, even skeletal, instrumentation of songs like "Moon" and "Solstice" is intentional; listening to them, one can find solace in their palpable negative space. To immerse oneself in these songs is to explore tactility in music, and this interactivity is more stimulating than any iPad app could be.
Really, though, Biophilia
ought to be commended most for its humanism. Just as she infused the cold rigidity of early-2000s laptop electronica with an almost painfully human warmth on Vespertine
and jolted a capella music out of its hokey stupor with the underrated Medúlla
, here Björk takes the Discovery Channel's didacticism and gives it whimsy and genuine heart. "Make me wonder,"
she intones in "Cosmogony", and it's both this commitment to exploration and rejection of intellectual ostentation that really makes this album tick as beautifully as it does. Nature's sheer enormity and unpredictability often has the effect of making one feel horribly insignificant, but Björk revels in that which is larger than herself. Her wide-eyed curiosity is infectious, filled with boundless enthusiasm, and utterly absent of cynicism.