Biophilia is not easy listening. The Icelandic singer and electronic composer has outdone herself on her eighth album, and the end product is brilliant but also intense. Since her debut in 1992, Bjork has conjured a reputation for pushing the envelope and pioneering new experimental sounds. But not even the remixed strings of Homogenic or the distorted vocal beats of Medulla are anywhere near as ambitious as Biophilia. Imagine a world where music, nature, science and technology embrace and nurture one another: This is an underlying lyrical concept that Bjork has transformed into a reality through a series of multimedia projects.
High-end technology meets new age philosophy and scientific theory to create unconventional music. Biophilia will soon be getting its own line of iPad apps, in which listeners will be able to interact with and rework its tracks. iPads were also used to produce a fair amount of the music on the record, along with a myriad of other groundbreaking instruments. Bjork meshes electronic beats with such enigmatic creations as the “gravity harp,” the “gameleste” (a hybrid of the gamelan and the celeste), and musical Tesla coils, abandoning tradition instruments entirely and realizing the wet dreams of music nerds everywhere. This technology alone has garnered much media attention, perhaps more than the music itself.
Bjork has always been a bit of a performance artist, but none of her previous efforts have been so entrenched in extra-musical production. This unfortunately leaves the album sounding a bit incomplete when it is listened to on its own. Without the iPad apps or a live performance (where the bulk of the entertainment is meant to occur), listeners may be intimidated by the dark, slow-moving work. Biophilia is by far the most minimalist cut from Bjork’s discography, and it is also the most conceptual — which makes for one dense listening experience. Only the most patient and attentive listeners will walk away with the satisfaction of really “getting” the record.
But those who do are in for a treat. Biophilia’s beauty undoubtedly lies in its flawless editing. Each additional listen unveils more hidden genius which listeners may have initially overlooked. Bjork ensures that everything from a soft, reverberating bassline to a harmony of shrieks serves a distinct purpose within a song. This endows even the smallest details with enormous power. For example, the eerily monotonous and circular sound of “Hollow” parallels its lyrical content about the never-ending bond between mothers and daughters across generations.
Only twice does Bjork slip out of this contained, orderly structure, once at the end of “Crystalline” and once at the end of “Mutual Core.” Both tracks begin as largely acoustic and vocal-oriented, then suddenly explode into fits of heavy bass and distorted breakbeats. These moments offer refreshing familiarity for Bjork fans as they return to the electronic dance sound she is best known for. It would have been nice to see a bit more of these up-tempo tracks, at the very least for some temporarily relief among an otherwise tense collection of songs.
Bjork’s strengths have always been her innovative production and, of course, her inimitable voice. She might not be the most talented musician, but her body of work continues to pioneer intriguing techniques and offer new directions for other artists. Biophilia’s strong focus on multimedia and performance over musical arrangement suggests that perhaps her ideas can no longer be constrained to music alone. This is an exciting notion for the future of performance art, but a bittersweet one for longtime fans of her records. Biophilia demonstrates just how nonexistent Bjork’s boundaries are and just how committed she is to realizing even the most outlandish of ideas.