BJÖRK: BIOPHILIA (2011)
1) Moon; 2) Thunderbolt; 3) Crystalline; 4) Cosmogony; 5) Dark Matter; 6) Hollow; 7) Virus; 8) Sacrifice; 9) Mutual Core; 10) Solstice.
I think that the title of the album is somewhat misleading. Biophilia is a (relatively simple and, when you come to think of it, rather self-obvious) idea of life being attracted to life — a natural inborn empathy towards organic entities, which is why, by default, we happen to like kittens and hippos better than rocks. (Not sure if the theory also works on the Ebola virus, though). This project of Björk's, however, pursues an even loftier goal, professing love and metaphoric exploitation towards just about every corner of the universe, from sub-atomic particles to planet movement and natural electrical phenomena — so, for the sake of accuracy, she would probably have been more justified to call it Cosmophilia. Then again, she probably wants to treat everything in the universe as a living thing. How artistic-pantheistic of her, again.
One thing you really have to respect the lady for is how she is still managing to keep in touch with the modern world: relatively few artists manage to escape «fossilization» and condescending rejection of modern values by the time they hit 45 — yet Biophilia is, in every respect, a record that just screams «the 2010s are upon us!». Not only was most of the music, according to Björk's own statement, composed on a tablet computer, but the album itself is not just an album: it is a sprawling, arch-trendy multimedia project, accompanied with visuals, educational applications, specialized live performance, and, on the whole, first billed as a «3-D scientific musical» and then as the first ever «app album», so now it can compete with Lady Gaga and Angry Birds at the exact same time: how smart is that?
Very smart, but, I am afraid to say, not very engaging. Personally, I am not very much interested in «multimedia artistry», and I am definitely not interested in watching somebody who used to be a terrific musical artist try and make a transition to a state where music ceases to be the major attraction and becomes «just one side of the story». From a certain point of view, this falls under the definition of «sellout» — in order to fit in better with the times, you sacrifice some of your strengths in favor of «what the market demands». These days, the market demands dazzling interactive visuals, so we play a game of «construct your own universe from elementary particle scratch» or «build a drum machine from a combination enzymes» (no kidding, this is exactly what the app associated with ʽHollowʼ is supposed to do). Yay, nice and cute and a good way to kill time for scientifically-oriented kids who hate reading books, but there is a downside to that: the more effort you spend on these things, the less effort remains for music.
And the music on Biophilia is disappointing — in fact, it is so disappointing that it just does not work as a self-standing album at all. Where Volta, for a while, returned Björk to the world of «art-pop», Biophilia takes us back to the wild experimentalism of Medúlla, only using electronic textures in the place of that record's multiple vocal overdubs — and using them to paint almost completely static pictures, with very few hooks and no musical development whatsoever. The typical recipé for a Biophilia song is — set a programmed groove and let the singer rave and rant against it for three to five minutes. Considering that the grooves are not of jaw-dropping quality, and that the singer's raving and ranting is simply all too familiar, what's a poor boy to do but inescapably turn his attention to the accompanying apps? At least pushing some buttons and learning to be the Master of the Universe will keep you from getting bored.
Ironically, reading about the album shows that the particular songs on here contain the largest doses of meaningful musical symbolism so far present on any single Björk record. The musical cycles on ʽMoonʼ echo the shifting of lunar phases; the electronic arpeggios on ʽThunderboltʼ symbolize lightning; ʽSolsticeʼ relies on pendulums; the fussy chimes on ʽVirusʼ represent viral activities within the cell, and so on. Disentangling all these combinations of ideas is truly a nerd's paradise — and here, indeed, is a «math-rock» album where «getting» the actual math is a real possibility, rather than an exercise in frustration.
Oh, if only the record would have a small pinch of emotional content in it — but alas, neither within its «applicational» context nor without it can I assess it as anything other than a purely formal, rationalized, carefully crafted, but ultimately soulless piece of work. Yes, there are lyrical themes here that tap into the personal, and any major Björk fan will see that, if we restrict ourselves to the words, she is actually using all that «scientific» imagery as simple metaphors for relations and feelings — like ʽVirusʼ, for instance, is really just a plain love song: "Like a virus needs a body / As soft tissue feeds on blood / Someday I'll find you, the urge is here". But the music that she writes is not indicative of any of those feelings. The music is more in the vein of Autechre — technologically-oriented «nano-grooves» that are much better rationalized and intellectually admired than intuitively enjoyed. And this even concerns the acoustic tracks like ʽMoonʼ and ʽSolsticeʼ, where Björk's beloved harps replace the electronics, or ʽCrystallineʼ, for which she invents a new instrument, «gameleste», a cross between a gamelan and a celesta. It's a cool, «crystal» sound, for that matter, but the instrument is used for sheer symbolic atmospherics, not for any sort of breathtaking melody that you could cherish in your heart forever, like the more traditional, but oh so much better resonating strings of ʽBacheloretteʼ, for instance.
I respect the work that went into the album and all its surrounding hoopla, and I recommend hearing it — it was one of the major artistic events of 2011, after all — but I also give it a thumbs down, because, like Medúlla, I consider it a failed experiment that preserves the formal principles of a «Björk record» without offering any genuine substance. As an accompanying piece to some fancy-pants Apple or Microsoft or TED multi-media presentation (of the «what a wonderful world...!» variety), it will work great. As a worthy follow-up to the grandiose/subtle beauty and joy of Debut, Post, Homogenic, and Vespertine, Biophilia does not stand a single chance — not in my book, at least. Next to these triumphs, there is nothing too new here, nothing too memorable, nothing too heartbreaking or heartwarming; and, worst of all, it sort of seems like the cheap designer thrills of the 21st century have finally gotten the better of a formerly unique and independent artist. Then again, there's nothing too unpredictable about this, either.