Björk: Biophilia; “Thunderbolt” live (CD Review; video)

Björk

Biophilia

One Little Indian/Nonesuch CD (digi; vinyl; digital app versions also available)

Björk’s latest release is more than just a studio album. For her Biophilia project, the artist has embraced both 21st century technology and espoused an aesthetic that reconnects music-making with the natural world. In the latter quest she’s in good – and venerable – company: Hildegard von Bingen promulgated a similar agenda through her own writings and musical works back in the 12th Century! Of course, Björk’s vantage point is decidedly more secularly ecumenical than Hildegard’s. But the notion of embracing the life force, being aware of (wo)man’s interaction with the environment and the cosmos, and the joy in eliciting the listener’s participation in the creation of music, are all affinities that resonate between them. Indeed, it’s in this participatory spirit that Björk has also released the album as a set of apps, encouraging listeners to dig in to some of the concepts behind the record’s creation and to explore some of the music in a more hands-on fashion. Those who prefer a less tech-fancy product can get a deluxe boxed set, limited edition vinyl, or one of several CD/digital formats.

All of these organizing principals and methods of distribution create high hopes: are the expectations and aesthetic pronouncements that surround Biophilia outsized when compared to its actual songs? No, the music remains central to the album’s design. It is ambitious in spirit and carefully crafted. Björk incorporates some of the classical music signatures she has incorporated on previous efforts – brass ensemble, vocal choirs, strings, etc. Beats and electronics are liberally added as well. Throughout, there’s a particular emphasis on plucked and percussive timbres – harps and dulcimers create a delicately clangorous soundscape that serves as a frequent through line on Biophilia.

This is still nominally a pop album, and as such the song designation is retained. But Björk is really creating compositions which stretch the boundaries of the song form, filled with digressions, changes in texture, demeanor, and even style. While the tendency towards the atmospheric has been abundantly present in her work (at least) since  2001′s Vespertine, Biophilia embraces a wide swath of sonic profiles. Some are quirky and endearing, like the organ-driven “Hollow.” Others are more beat-driven, like the astonishingly variated “Crystalline.” Electronica presents itself here n a glitchy fashion rather than embracing a standard dancehall-ready beat template. And then there is “Dark Matter,” a thoughtful, deliciously dissonant piece of chamber music: a piece that will likely prove polarizing: enervating to Björk’s detractors and riveting to kindred spirits.

The one constant amidst all of this musical diversity is Björk’s voice, which remains a singular, expressive, and powerful instrument, capable of great dynamic range and innumerable timbral adjustments. And while Biophilia demands much from its listeners, even by the standards set by the increasingly adventurous approach found in each successive Björk release, it’s likely that her voice alone is sufficient enough a beacon to light the pathway for listeners. Those who persist will find many sonic revelations and cherished musical moments therein.

Here is a video of a recent live performance of album cut “Thunderbolt.”

Here’s a video taster course for the Biophilia app suite

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