Few, if any, artists as prominent as Björk is are so innovative by nature and eager to take risks, though who and what she is tends to overshadow how brilliant her actual work can be. While it’s no surprise that the Icelandic multimedia star would be known by a mainstream audience for her infamous red-carpet swan dress or, at most, as an art-scarred proto-Gaga, Björk probably isn’t even appreciated as she should be by music lovers in the know, in part because her adventurousness as a performer makes her hard to keep up with and get a handle on. With each album since 1997’s electro-pop masterpiece Homogenic, the way Björk has singlemindedly explored a specific out-of-left-field musical conceit has drawn attention away from the music itself, be it the digital-age music-box melodies of 2001’s Vespertine or the vocal explorations of 2004’s Medulla. That restless, hard-to-pin-down creativity might explain why the most lasting and sharpest musical images of her still remain instances before Björk became full-on Björk, like her very first solo single “Human Behaviour” and the bizarro showtune “It’s Oh So Quiet”.
Yet even in a career that has constantly tested just how high-concept and avant-garde pop culture can be, Björk’s latest effort to basically invent an artistic medium on Biophilia is her biggest challenge and most out-in-front project to date, being touted as it is as the world’s first “app” album. What’s more, Biophilia wasn’t just created for new technology, but by it, with some of the music made on an iPad. And that’s not to mention how she enlisted a whole army of scientists and music geeks to develop an arsenal of toys, including (but not limited to) a giant musical pendulum designed in a MIT lab called a Gravity Harp, a Tesla Coil used as a bass, and the gameleste, a hybrid of two other obscure instruments. As such, anticipation for the music has been outpaced by questions about just what the heck the thing is and how it’ll work. Indeed, the full experience of Biophilia is intended to be a multimedia one, perhaps the quintessential case of a cultural artifact we think about more than enjoy because we’re still not sure what exactly we’re gonna do with it. More than ever for Björk, the music itself is only a part of the picture, which makes it all the easier not to fully appreciate the songs on their own terms.
That said, the total app package, even if it isn’t quite second nature to us yet, complements the experimental and ahead-of-its-time qualities of Björk’s music well, helping her to realize what’s more or less her own alternate universe on the solar system-like “homepage” (or whatever you call it). Each individual track app includes a visualization of the song that looks like a cross between animated sheet music and a glorified screensaver as well as added features like games that allow you to manipulate and remix the sounds. As a sampling of the project, the handful of pre-release apps available at the time of writing do give a good sense of how eclectic and diverse the cosmological themed Biophilia is as a whole. Each song becomes like a world unto its own, complete with unique visual and sonic signatures. In its app form, the game version of album opener “Moon” augments a starry night soundscape that’s reminiscent of the quieter moments on Vespertine with animation that synchronizes cosmic cycles to the biorhythms of what looks like a system of bodily organs. The imagery for “Crystalline” goes more retro, matching its amped-up, syncopated techno-orchestration to geometric visuals that bring to mind a 2K reboot of that late ’70s arcade classic Asteroids, while “Virus” is pretty straightforward, letting you mess around with what looks like a souped-up microscope slide of brightly lit cells.
And yet, Björk’s singular artistic vision is somehow able to bring all these elements together into an orbit around it on “Cosmogony”: the heart, soul, and connective tissue of Biophilia, “Cosmogony” not only provides the background music to the main app housing the others, but it’s also the album’s thematic center as it infuses the science and technology concepts with something organic and warm. Backed by meditative, almost mournful horns that recall the melancholy and existential yearning of her overlooked Dancer in the Dark soundtrack, Selmasongs, Björk outlines her own big bang theories here, comparing varied beliefs of how the universe came to be with a palpable feeling of care and respect: “And they say: back then our universe / Was a coal-black egg — until the god inside / Burst out and from its shattered shell / He made what became the world we know,” she sings in a verse that radiates with a simmering spirituality. All in all, “Cosmogony” transforms the iPad into something that’s a cross between a handheld planetarium show and a virtual hymnbook for Björk’s devotees.
The thing is, though, you really don’t need any of the techie bells-and-whistles to admire and become transfixed by what might be Björk’s most immersive album since Homogenic. Certainly, it’s her most diverse collection of songs since her eclectic breakthrough Post, with elements of everything that came after it woven together, threading Homogenic‘s rapid-fire beats, Vespertine‘s intricate symphonics, and the bright world music accents of Volta into its sonic fabric. But it’s all done with a delicate and deft touch — indeed, the irony of Biophilia is that Björk’s boldest artistic statement yet is one that’s so intimate and even understated. Once you set your iPad on sleep, you’ll be absorbed right off the bat by the spare harp lines on “Moon”, which carry the song as pretty much the only accompaniment Björk’s vocals have on it, besides her own multi-tracked backup singing and some other picked-at string instrument. Going in another direction, “Thunderbolt” follows up “Moon” by putting the over-the-top instrumentation to good use, like the Tesla Coil bass and a specially made digital pipe organ. But somehow, “Thunderbolt” never becomes a cacophonous mess, staying in a state of controlled chaos where you can hear each of the elements even as the chemistry between them happens.
At their best, the highlights on Biophilia stand as fitting testaments as there are to what’s wondrous and compelling about Björk, only these moments are articulated in an even more refined manner than usual. The first single “Crystalline” might as well be an expertly crafted Björk sampler in and of itself, as the xylophone-like gameleste patterns at the outset intertwine themselves with punchy rhythms and splashy electronic effects as the track builds to a frenetic, off-kilter drum’n’bass crescendo that’s too vibrant to be just a blast-from-the-past nod to Homogenic. Likewise, the album’s most viscerally powerful number “Mutual Core” offers a play of textures and tempos, moving between grand pipe organ chords and glitchy, twitchy techno beats, with Björk’s searching vocals the glue between them. It’s music that sounds just as at home in the sacred place of a vast cathedral as it is in the virtual vacuum of cyberspace.
There are some moments on Biophilia that are too atmospheric and subtle that they almost call for the stimulation of the app goodies to complete the picture, especially the low profile “Dark Matter” and the overly abstract “Hollow”, with its cold modern classical stylings. However, much of Biophilia holds you rapt because of the painstaking details: A sneakily infectious art-pop number, “Virus” features a gameleste arrangement that sounds like an symphony made up of toy instruments, punctuated ever so slightly by hand-tapped percussion. All the while, Björk tells a tender story of symbiosis and longing that puts a twist on the song’s title and makes epidemiology seem romantic: “Like a virus — patient hunter / I’m waiting for you, I’m starving for you,” she implores. The nuanced differences mean everything on “Sacrifice”, like the tinge of exotic, minor-key tones conjured up by the Sharpsichord (what’s essentially an overgrown player piano) and a touch more of rhythmic texture that a coating of warm, clingy static brings to the sizzling synthetic beats.
Even more so than with Björk’s previous albums, Biophilia is the ultimate example of a work that will have an impact that won’t register and can’t be measured in the short run, since she’s breaking new ground few others know is out there to begin with. Maybe one day app albums will be commonplace or maybe they won’t, but you can’t help but be blown away by the Björk R&D department on this one, even if all its advancements and innovations might be going over your head for the time being. For now, it’s enough to know that if it’s possible to merge human imagination and artificial intelligence, Björk’s working on it.