November 17, 2011

Björk tones it down on Biophilia

Cosmological lyrics, pipe organs and choirs backed up with electronics are all heavily featured on Björk’s latest album Biophilia. Everyone’s favorite insane and ingenious Icelandic songstress has followed up 2007’s punchy, hip-hop-inspired Volta with an album that could hold its own on the “classical crossover” shelf in the record store. More orchestral instruments have found their way onto the album than any of her previous work, and many of the songs eschew electronic beats completely. Although Björk has never been known as a dance floor musician, Biophilia is still an intensely quiet and introspective album, continuing her 2001 album Vespertine’s trend towards reduced and muted music.

Like Vespertine, many songs on Biophilia feature the harp. The opening song “Moon” showcases Björk’s powerful and versatile voice, which intones over gently rising harp arpeggios. As the song progresses, her voice is layered over itself, creating multi- Björk choruses, a familiar sound for those who have listened to her previous work. “Thunderbolt” features more of these layered vocals, but the pipe organ and creeping bass electronics replace the harp. Tentative beats enter into the song halfway through, but are only ephemeral, fading in and out.

The first single released from the album, “Crystalline,” at first follows the precedent of the previous songs on the album, with cerebral lyrics sung over rising notes, this time on the gameleste, an electronic gamelan-celeste fusion that sounds more like a music box. However, about halfway through, electronic beats start weaving in and out of the musical fabric, and, by the end the song, become an explosion of drums and clicks. The next two tracks, “Cosmogony” and “Dark Matter,” do away with beats in favor of haunting, often unsettling dissonant chord clusters in the chorus or organ, respectively. Björk’s voice is at an especial peak on “Dark Matter.” Perfectly paired with electronic pitch modification, it blends into the accompanying organ, and the two become a single eerie instrument.

“Hollow’s rhythmic cellos give way to the tinkling sounds of “Virus”, in which Björk compares herself to a parasite in a metaphor for love: “Like a virus needs a body…someday I’ll find you.” Following this is probably the most extroverted song on the album, “Mutual Core,” which combines much of the material introduced in previous songs but to more robust effect, with beats, organs, and voices (complete with Byzantine melismas) intertwining together. The album closes with “Solstice,” a quiet finish to an album of many quiet songs.

In multiple press releases and reviews of Biophilia, the most talked-about and lauded aspect of the album has been its multimedia connections. Björk released Biophilia along with a collection of iTunes apps, one for each song, with games or interactive images to accompany (or, as in the case of the app for “Dark Matter,” create) the music. Known for pushing the boundaries of what a pop artist can do, Björk’s decision to release the apps with the album was seen as an attempt to take this innovation further, utilizing new media.

However, Björk’s innovation has never rested in her technological advances, but with her music itself. Biophilia takes apart songs, reducing them to the most basic qualities. The opening of “Thunderbolt,” for instance, with its ascetic organ-voice combination, sounds more like organum than pop. And not only does the album continue to develop what her earlier work did in the reduction of music, it also proves that Björk’s greatest asset, her voice, is stronger than ever. The apps are too disparate from her music to add anything new, but this proves to be a boon. A listener can forget the iTunes collaboration and focus instead on what sounds more like the classical song cycle of the future. Like the night sky, so often mentioned in the album’s lyrics, Biophilia is atmospheric, haunting, and sometimes overwhelming in its expansiveness.