Premature Evaluation: Björk Biophilia
Every Björk album has some sort of overarching concept that also serves as an attention-grabbing hook — the Feminist World Warrior album, the A Capella album, the Sexy Bedtime IDM album. For an artist who’s been in the game a long time, that’s a canny approach; it keeps Björk from repeating herself, and it turns every album into a big new event. It also means that there’s no fundamental Björk album, no one album that most encapsulates her sound. So her new album Biophilia is an interesting case in that the album’s overarching concept is mostly an extramusical one. This is her iPad album, her exploration of the union between music and technology. Much of the album’s story is wrapped up in the supposedly-groundbreaking iPad apps she’s helped to create for every single one of the album’s tracks. But hearing the album without those apps helping to color the experience, the resulting LP hews closer to her own personal aesthetic more than any of her previous ones have done. Biophilia sounds more like A Björk Album than any other Björk album has before.
On Biophilia, Björk uses a few musical elements that she hasn’t tried before, like the gigantic experimental instruments that have never been showcased in a format like this before. But there are no big-name collaborators or all-new textures. Björk isn’t investigating the expressive power of the human voice or figuring out how it would sound to combine airy string quartets with icy beats. She’s simply exploring within the boundaries of a musical world that she’s already created over the course of her previous records. In a way, then, she’s treading water, at least compared to what she’s done on previous records. But because she’s created such a vast and singular musical world, there’s plenty of room for her to explore, and Biophilia never repeats itself or gets boring. It wriggles around, the way a Björk album should.
Every song on the album explores a different idea. “Hollow,” for instance, is an unsettling, vaguely assonant experimental piece that refuses to fall into any recognizable progression or time signature. “Cosmogony,” in contrast, could be an alternate-universe prom ballad; it’s as soft and inviting a track as Björk has ever recorded. “Sacrifice” seems to be Björk’s take on the Knife’s demonic, creeped-out synthpop — a sound heavily influenced by Björk herself in the first place. And even within the tracks themselves, Biophilia dances and swerves and mutates. In the middle of all that downbeat chilliness on “Sacrifice,” for instance, a euphoric burst of drums will occasionally burst in. Partway through, “Crystalline” suddenly changes from glassy mood music to feverish drill n’ bass. There’s a great moment on “Mutual Core” where everything builds into a vengeful pound that wouldn’t have been out of place among the more militant tracks on Volta, but then the song calms back down in seconds.
But as much as the album moves between different ideas, it’s still plenty possible to go into deep zone-out mood while listening to it. With Björk’s inimitable voice serving as the bridge between these ideas, even the dizziest moments feel warm and familiar. Björk has become one of the most beloved figures in our corner of the musical universe in part because she tests things and pushes that voice in different directions every time. But when she sings, she sounds absolutely nothing like anybody else on earth. This, then, is still the same voice that wailed “Human Behavior” at us nearly two decades ago, so even her furthest-out moments on Biophilia feel comforting in ways that she might not have intended. Björk albums take a long time to reveal themselves, so I have no idea where the album fits alongside her other albums right now, and I might not know for a year or so. I do know, however, that it’s no disappointment. She brought it, once again.
Biophilia is out 10/11 on Nonesuch.