Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: Bjork, "Biophilia"

One Little Indian, Polydor

There's an app for that. Bjork's seventh studio album proper, was preceded by months of history's geekiest album hype, so much that it threatened to overwhelm the project entirely. Designed as a somewhat interactive multimedia presentation, Biophilia had the input of everyone from Apple to David Attenborough to Nikola Tesla to National Geographic in both design and execution: there's a set of songs you can download, yes, but there's also a series of iPad apps, written essays, games, animations, live shows, and for all we know, guerilla street theater. If the Icelandic performance-art chanteuse wanted to distance herself from the pop mainstream after the Timbaland constructions on her last effort, 2007's Volta, she picked a hell of a way to do it.

Since the Balkanization of the record industry, intelligent, cultish name artists have doubled down on this kind of thing -- no longer does a performer make a covers album or a Christmas album, but rather a project with a very specific set of reference points, feeding the maw of the information age with incredibly dense projects you can really dig into. In fact, the concept of "album" has already evolved into a cloud of which it is only the center; the art now only begins as an individual vision, and then expands outward into whatever the consumer chooses to make of it. If enough people are listening, anything you say can become a meme.

This review only seeks to understand Biophilia as an album. And that's okay, because Bjork created it that way at its center, sitting at home in Reykjavik and noodling on -- that's right -- an iPad. She's Bjork, though, so that also means she had a gamelan/celeste hybrid created that she could control with a keypad, as well as "gravity harps" that create random tones out of a series of Foucault-style pendulums, wrote songs in difficult time signatures like 7/4 and 17/8, and added a gorgeous-sounding Icelandic female choir to her own amazing multi-tracked vocals. 

Daunting, even for Bjorkophiles, even more so when you consider how seriously she took the project's theme: spiritual rebirth through the observation of universal phenomena. And yet, the effort sounds as natural as it needs to -- the end result of this arthouse orgy is a very gentle mix of Western and Eastern chamber music, with occasional dnb beats thrown in, and synth washes and delicate vocals for shading. A song like the opener, "Moon," stimulates more of your brain as you open up to it; like every track here, it mimics in form what its titular phenomenon does in nature, so there are repeating music cycles undulating against each other as she intones: "As if the healthiest pastime / Is being in life-threatening circumstances / And once again be reborn / All birthed and happy."

Because Bjork is as in control of her muse as she is her ever-more-formidable vocal instrument, you don't need to know all this to enjoy it. You can merely close your eyes (!) and dive into the brief, menacing interlude of "Dark Matter," for example, without knowing that it was written in gibberish simply because science doesn't know what to make of it yet. "Virus" isn't the first song to make falling in love seem like a disease, but it may be the first to make both seem like a healthy process. The single (and musical red herring) "Crystalline" sums up the album's zeitgeist perfectly in its zeal to open oneself to human emotional change the way natural cycles accept the physical kind. Biophilia is the most challenging album Bjork's made yet, not least because her subject matter forces all the songs to be taken at a slow, deliberate, methodical pace; it also means that voice, which she has more power over than ever, isn't allowed to soar to the heights it usually does. But as ear candy, it works just fine on its own, assuming you meet it halfway. Think of Biophilia as a planetarium show going on inside your soul. And wherever else in the physical world you agree to meet it.

Graded using the Third Eye Method:

Impact: 72. Our little ice pixie has an almost Kubrickian way of translating the universe sometimes. Like him, however, she can come off cold and dull if you don't get her vision.  
Invention: 95. Through the roof. No throat singing this time, happily.
Integrity: 83. Technology is quietly sneaking performance art into the mainstream.


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