The most common caricatures of Björk tend to fixate on her outsized aesthetic sense. But for all the bonkers fashion choices, outré collaborators, and leftfield influences she pulls into her orbit, it’s easy to forget that her worldview is also equally informed by a sympathy and awareness of the systems that guide us. From the "beats and strings" manifesto that shaped Homogenic to the "music for laptop speakers" mandate that drove Vespertine through to the vocals-only absolutism of Medúlla, her obsession with patterns and structure and conceptual boundaries has consistently been at the center of her work. Often, she has celebrated the messiness and the chaos implicit in these very things ; in fact, the very first line of her very first single took a perverse delight in the lack of logic inherent in one of the biggest and most complex systems of all : human behavior.
Biophilia marks Björk’s eighth full-length release, and represents her definitive attempt to create an ecosystem around her work. Billed as her "most ambitious and interdisciplinary project yet" and boasting all the usual fixings of a Björk release (dazzling artwork, a Michel Gondry video, vanguard instrumentation, a bizarre list of collaborators), it also comes supported by a corresponding iPad application for each of its 10 tracks, a new website, a series of live shows and "music workshops", and a forthcoming 90-minute film documenting its creation. Beyond that, the album itself purports to engage with some pretty momentous themes, with song titles like "Thunderbolt", "Dark Matter", and "Cosmogony" and imagery focusing on time, space, and the natural world. (Note that editor Brandon Stosuy wrote press materials for this release prior to being hired by Pitchfork.)
The stakes feel even higher in light of Björk’s mottled output over the past decade. Between 2004’s well-received but thin-sounding Medúlla and 2007’s unfocused and sprawling Volta, Björk has arguably been unable to produce anything definitive since 2001’s Vespertine. In its worst moments, Volta painted a picture of an artist whose quality control instincts had been eroded by indulgence. One would be forgiven if news of all the scaffolding around Biophilia sounded up alarm bells : Is this her coming back strong, or piling conceptual materials on top of her music in an effort to give it extra depth ?
If the songs themselves are any indication, the answer leans more toward the latter. While the promotional and conceptual packaging around Biophilia are as forward-thinking as ever, the sheer quality of Björk’s songwriting remains problematic. It feels, once again, as if she’s prioritized the superficial aspects of Biophilia’s presentation over, well, the music. I can’t imagine, for example, how a middle section as dull as "Dark Matter" and "Hollow" made the cut. Even slightly more realized compositions like the the music box plink of "Virus" and the twitching "Thunderbolt" are essentially just simple motifs stretched way beyond their limits. Too often, she combats the lack of any real structure or melody by over-singing, or lapsing into one of her familiar and increasingly lazy-sounding house vocal runs. It too often feels as if Björk’s songwriting process is now to sing arbitrarily over top of her collaborators’ instrumental tracks rather than structure the music around a melody.
Sure, there are highlights. When she does get a tune to sing, she attacks it with almost apologetic gusto. Lead single "Crystalline" features one of the album’s best hooks, and as a result, one of Björk’s best and most focused performances. Elsewhere, the gorgeous "Cosmogony" carries a faint hymnal quality and an immediacy that wouldn’t sound totally out of place on Vespertine or even Homogenic. With its satisfyingly filthy electro skronk, the uptempo "Mutual Core" may be the album’s best track overall.
Although a big part of the PR story around Biophilia, the apps ultimately feel less than essential to the overall experience. Even after spending significant amounts of time with them, it’s easy to separate them mentally from the music. They’re well-designed and infused with appropriate amounts of playfulness and mystery, and a few have almost meditative properties that suit the music well, but ultimately they feel like they’re there to support a concept rather than vice versa. Beyond that, in costing $1.99 apiece (or just under $10 for the full complement), the app gambit ultimately hits upon another latter-day Björk tendency, which is her seeming willingness to exploit all available revenue streams.
Is it fair to fault Biophilia for failing to realize its own ambition ? That’s a tough question ; Björk’s curatorial acumen, her visual sense, and her vision are so beyond reproach that it feels almost churlish to complain about something as simple as a lack of melody, or the fact that she’s an experimental music pioneer who might just be over-charging for her experimental iPad apps. Nonetheless, for an album ostensibly about the elements, there are some essential pieces missing here. As an innovator, she’s as vibrant as ever, but as a songwriter, she sounds tired.