With each new announcement regarding Icelandic superstar-turned-environmentalist Björk’s mammoth multimedia project, Biophilia, it seems confusion over its exact nature has only deepened. Not even Sir David Attenborough was able to provide a concise explanation of her vision, talking instead in vague terms about the “elusive places where we meet nature”. But whatever the questions still surrounding Björk’s project – be they about the iPad apps to accompany each song on the album, the supposed educational aspect of the project or, perhaps most importantly, her latest hairstyle – our picture of the musical side of Biophilia has become substantially clearer over the last couple of months. Having served us a tantalising 30 second clip of herself listening to the song in her car, Björk released Biophilia’s first single, ‘Crystalline’, at the end of June and has since followed up with two more, ‘Cosmogony’ and ‘Virus’.
Opening with a lullaby-like melody played on what sounds like a giant music box embellished with a cascade of stuttering chimes, ‘Virus’ is the outstanding track of the three, traversing a sparkling soundscape immediately reminiscent of Vespertine, Björk’s masterpiece of 2001. As Björk sings from the point of view of the titular invaders, “like a flame seeks explosives/as gunpowder needs a war/I feast inside you/my host is you”, ‘Virus’ confirms itself as the most lyrically engaging song Björk has penned since the personal explorations undertaken so fearlessly on Vespertine. As with all of Björk’s finest works, the melodies that weave throughout the track seem elusive at first, darting from sight almost as soon as they come into focus, but as familiarity grows so do the levels of delicate beauty possessed by this striking song.
‘Crystalline’ also provides a considerable degree of promise for Biophilia, exploring similar musical territory to ‘Virus’, with a sparse arrangement centred around a web of chimes, but with a more immediate vocal melody and rhythmic drive. Perhaps ironically though, this track, whose app will supposedly teach us about musical structure, is distinctly lacking in development as the song progresses. In place of the organic ebb and flow of ‘Virus’ we find instead a starkly linear, repetitive structure whose only attempt at progression comes in the jarring closing minute as a crude barrage of drum and bass breaks appear out of nowhere, virtually destroying the atmosphere of the preceding music.
Following an ominous beginning of slowly rising vocals, ‘Cosmogony’ soon settles into what is the most straightforward, and probably the most faceless, song of the three singles. Backed by an expansive brass ensemble, Björk delivers a mid-paced ballad which is sadly lacking in any real spark and marred by some questionable lyrics – “heaven, heaven’s bodies/whirl around me” – rescued only by her typically sincere vocal delivery.
These singles present something of a mixed bag, then, but after just three glimpses at the finished product it is perhaps unfair to pass judgement on a project that is so obviously intended to be viewed as a whole. Whilst Biophilia will doubtless be an interesting and immersive experience, it remains to be seen how well the music will stand up when considered without reference to the multimedia aspects of this project.