Björk’s always been a performer with a lot of ideas. These ideas haven’t necessarily been in the fore of all of her output, or the general reaction to it (it’s odd to think now, of how often Björk was described in the music press with something like “Icelandic sex kitten”), but they’ve always been there. At the same time, Björk’s largely been described as a “pop” artist, and pop music typically requires artists to deal in certain forms and styles that aren’t necessarily meant to engage listeners with ideas.
Biophilia, then, is the record where all of that ends (though you probably could’ve made that statement for all of Björk’s albums since 2000’s Dancer in the Dark soundtrack, Selmasongs). It’s not an album as much as it’s a vehicle for Björk’s thoughts about music and nature and education and life. That’s why there’s iPad apps and installations and residencies, not tours. Indeed, talking in interviews Björk makes it clear that the other components of her Biophilia project are integral to understanding exactly what it was she set out to accomplish. At the heart of it though, we’re still left with what’s Björk’s been doing for most her whole life: music.
The music that makes up Biophilia is bracingly different from what Björk’s put out before, even its predecessor, 2007’s Volta. This album is more minimal, more intimate, its sound is more organic and almost entirely devoid of the mechanical, glittering electronic moments that Björk’s music has favored in the past. The fact that she’s put aside much of the elements that’ve been such a huge part of her music up to this point is a sure sign that she’s serious about the ideas that drove her to create Biophilia.
So of course, as a purely musical work Biophilia doesn’t work the way any of Björk’s previous releases have, because it’s not supposed to be purely musical. There are more than a few tracks on this album that definitely recall some of the more restrained work that Björk’s done in the past: first single “Crystalline,” the warm “Virus,” and “Sacrifice.” All three are songs that fit in with this record but still hew more or less to the type of idiosyncracy listeners expect from Björk.
Other songs more clearly service the concepts behind Biophilia rather than the listener’s ear. Tracks like “Hollow” and “Thunderbolt” go to levels so formless, so abstract, so Björkian that they might just make you forget that Timbaland had not one, but two producing credits on her last album.
But from Debut to Biophilia, Björk’s highly original personality as an artist has always been what it’s about, and even when her grip on us maybe isn’t as strong as we’d like it to be, her incomparable voice, the sheer force of her expressive ability are always arresting.What’s ironic, is that judging by the structure of Biophilia as a project, with its apps and its installations and six-week residencies, one of its goals is to put the music in the center instead of an artist and her work. There’s certainly something admirable about that, but when that artist is Björk….well, good luck.