In the critical attention surrounding Björk’s eighth album, Biophilia, there has been a disturbing trend towards accusing the Icelandic maverick of multidisciplinary overreach. Biophilia is certainly an ambitious project, extending beyond the album to encompass live shows, educational workshops and a suite of apps that somehow manages to incorporate the voice of David Attenborough and essays from the musicologist Nicola Dibben. But it would be a mistake to underestimate Björk’s latest creation.
Since 1993’s Debut, Björk has reveled in characterizing herself outside of convention. This is an artist who is quite simply peerless in her perpetual drive to push forwards the language of contemporary pop music. While 2001’s introverted Vespertine focused on the purely acoustic construction of a Nordic soundscape, the audiovisual imagination of Biophilia delights in subverting this. Biophilia’s apps, each focusing on explaining and playing around a specific musical idea such as counterpoint and tempo, capture the spirit which first drew me to Björk’s music: a propensity for the unpredictable without ever alienating her audience.
The Biophilia song cycle itself has no pretensions to covering new musical ground, and instead returns to Björk’s earlier explorations of space and timbral parameters. Björk’s slightly over-miked voice remains true to the breathy aesthetic of the post-Vespertine era. The lilting melody of ‘Virus’, softly spoken against chiming clusters, is a wonder to behold. ‘I knock on your skin and I am in’, she delicately articulates. Even the lyrics seem to reference the eroticised world of Vespertine and Medúlla.
Parts of the album celebrate Björk’s typical brand of brash experimentalism. The gamaleste, a specially developed gamelan-celeste hybrid, weaves its way through ‘Crystalline’ before the song disintegrates in a burst of Squarepusher-esque cacophony. But the most striking moments reveal themselves in Biophilia’s more intimately shaped pieces. The uneven harmonies set up by the pipe organ and choir of ‘Dark Matter’, through to the sparse setting of Björk’s vocals and pendulum harp in the closing ‘Solstice’ make for deeply affecting music. Biophilia is full of the beauty of a true original.