Björk’s eighth studio solo album is at once her most and least Björk-y. On one hand, this intersection of science, music, technology, and emotion is brimming with Björkisms that could read as self-parody, if the whole damn thing weren’t so serious. (“As the lukewarm hands of the gods came down and gently picked my adrenalin pearls…” is how “Moon” opens, while “Mutual Core” starts, “I shuffle around the tectonic plates in my chest….”) While less rigid in its m.o. than, say, 1997’s Homogenic and its distortion-plus-strings credo, a pipe-organ fixation permeates Biophilia.
And yet, Björk is as boundless as ever. She won’t even so much as commit to a single medium — the full effect here is meant to be experienced live in a series of multi-week residencies, as well as via iPad apps that assign each of Biophilia‘s 10 songs a heap of bonus material like games, makeshift instruments, animated song maps, and essays.
Clearly, this isn’t like any prior album of Björk’s (or anyone else’s!), but that goes beyond add-ons. In the app text, she spells out her conscious sonic shift: “I’m trying to break out of the 4/4 (time signature) and the computer.” What this means is that Biophilia is her least pop-oriented album to date. “Hollow” sounds like an anxiety attack, shifting from 17/8 time to 9/4. “Dark Matter” is the sort of atonal vocalizing that she typically does to conceive a melody; here it’s left in raw, zygotic form.
And this is also the most acoustic-sounding Björk album. Many instruments were developed specifically for Biophilia — a pendulum harp, a Gameleste, a “sharpsichord.” Beats now merely hold space, pulsing under the weight of more robust sounds (like the empty kick of “Hollow”), or lying dormant and then exploding for effect, as on “Crystalline.” This technique, it must be said, has become somewhat less effective since she blew our minds with it on 1995’s “Hyperballad.”
Elsewhere, songs like the gorgeous “Virus” (in which falling in love is compared to infection) and the exhilarating “Mutual Core” (which recalls Homogenic‘s genre-defying peaks with its organ and distorted, call-and-response beat) lighten up an album of fairly heavy lifting. While the move away from hooks and structural convention is a logical step for someone so endlessly forward-thinking, Biophilia isn’t very much fun. But just because Björk isn’t making pop music doesn’t mean that she still isn’t a pop artist. And if packaging is the cornerstone of pop, Björk is as accessible as ever — the app is the key to cracking these hard nuts. If nothing else, playing a Simon-esque game during “Dark Matter” or rolling a polygon through various tunnels along with “Crystalline” creates a repetition that helps these songs sink in. Just watching the lot of them scroll by, their sounds assigned to ascending and descending orbs, helps make sense of it all.
Of course, once you’ve done all that, and read the words of both Björk and University of Sheffield musicologist Nikki Dibben (who analyzes all the tracks in detail), you’ll notice that some of the magic of listening is gone. Spend a few hours with the app and it begins to feel too dissected, too clinical. Björk triumphs over her universe of sonic exercises on Biophilia, but she’s yet to master the more slippery nature of demystification.