Björk is undoubtedly one of the more questing spirits working in music today ; but with Biophilia, that quest seems to have led her too far away from her core specialism of music.
It’s a classic case of multi-media overreach, with the actual album just one tiny fragment of a project involving various apps, websites, interactive games, animations, live strategies, custom-built instruments and, lord help us, educational workshops. Nor is the album simply an album : it’s available in a range of five formats, including a Manual Edition housed in a 48-page cloth-bound hardback book, and the Ultimate Edition, which houses the Manual Edition in a silkscreened, lacquered oak case, along with 10 chrome-plated tuning forks, each representing the "tone" of an individual album track. (I’m not making this up.)
But so concerned as she and her co-creators doubtless were with the artistic and educational aspects, and the project’s intended "exploration of the universe and its physical forces" (with particular regard to the "relationships between musical structures and natural phenomena"), and with inventing the instruments on which to realise these explorations, they appear to have overlooked one small matter : enjoyment. For while there are some beautiful moments on Biophilia, they seem like accidents the more one listens. The key here is that Björk, one of the most dynamic and inspirational singers of our time, is barely singing at all, just vocally negotiating a series of uneasy rapprochements between words and music. At times, it’s hard not to conclude that the music and lyrics were devised totally separately, and then forced together in forms it’s difficult to acknowledge as songs.
Which makes the album – the music, on its own – hard to love. It may come to life more in the context of an iPad app, but as a stand-alone element it’s several decent tunes short of a singalong. The invented instruments, such as the gameleste, a celeste re-fitted with the metal bars of a gamelan, and the Sharpsichord, a 10-foot pin barrel harp (whatever that is), make intermittently delightful sounds, in a sort of Harry Partch- lite manner of twinkly percussive tinklings ; but there seems little relation between them and the skittering dubstep and drum’n’bass beats that gatecrash some tracks partway through.
The only reliably engaging elements of the compositions are the wonderful choral arrangements that provide most of the mortar connecting Björk’s voice to the instrumental parts. Complex and microtonally acute, they’re a constant delight as she reflects upon her desire for the "dangerous gifts" of elemental nature, the lightning-flash of creative inspiration ("Thunderbolt") ; muses about being a bead threaded upon a DNA chain ("Hollow") ; explores the ethically neutral, natural attraction of parasite to host ("Virus") ; admires the creative force of volcanic energy ("Mutual Core") ; and, in the album’s most engaging song, ponders the cosmological mythos ("Cosmogony"). The secret of its success is simple : it’s by some distance the most appealing – and ironically, in the context of the album, the most natural – melody here