Björk’s “Biophilia” strikes strangely satisfying chord

By Emily Kuhn

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Björk has done it again. “Biophilia,” released this October, is a daring, grinning experiment of a magnitude untapped by most musicians. Over four years since her last album, “Volta” (2007), this latest release is by far the most unique and thrilling of her work. It was partially composed on a tablet, with apps designed for the iPhone and iPad to accompany each song.

The album is a messy cacophony of sound that is both intimate and haunting. Each song contains its own world, drawing the listener in with a mixture of varied tempos and Björk’s signature magnetic vocals. It is intentionally daring and different, yet it coalesces into a harmonious whole that displays Björk’s deep relationship to the sound.

On her website, she has described the content of this album as being “without humans,” and rather “zooming out like the planets but also zooming in into the atoms.” She has also referred to her album’s subject matter as the “physics of sound.” It’s quite an experiment, one which most musicians are not willing to explore. Each song, which comes with its own app, also has thematic visuals which the listener and viewer can interact with. For the song “Virus,” the corresponding app depicts the interaction of cell and virus, which the song portrays as a rather twisted but beautiful love story.

New musical instruments were arranged for “Biophilia,” which already displays intriguing electronica and atypical musical beats. The Tesla coil is used as an instrument in the song “Thunderbolt,” and a “gameleste,” a combination of gamelan and a celesta, was also employed in several songs. This type of innovation and experimentation is one of the underlying patterns which pervade the album.

The songs themselves are cosmic in their orders of magnitude; their titles alone evoke worlds, while their lyrics present analogies to the phenomena invoked by the titles. The jagged “Dark Matter” features lyrics that are largely gibberish (or maybe a new branch of Pig Latin unexplored) due to the fact that in reality, dark matter is largely “unexplainable.” For the tribalistic, ancestor-acknowledging “Hollow,” Björk took inspiration from her own DNA and her ancestral family.

The metaphor-driven lyrics of each song are accompanied by musical illustration. The song “Thunderbolt,” for instance, contains suspenseful arpeggios reminiscent of the gap between lighting and its thunderous consequence. The song “Moon” has different musical cycles that repeat throughout the song, directly inspired by the monthly cycles of the moon.

Björk’s voice guides the sometimes messy and certainly allegorical concepts that are the powering force behind the offbeat tempos and mysterious lyrics. The majestic spectrum of her ideas is held delicately in balance with the album’s electronic beats and unusual instrumentals. Björk manages to walk this line throughout the entire album, providing a sense of intimacy along with the extraordinary.

The sounds in “Biophilia” are spiritual in nature, but without going granola or New Age; the subject matter, Björk’s voice and her unusual instrumentation demand their own terms of musical interpretation. Her poignant voice relays the wonder of the universe, the familial relationship between a woman and her DNA and the multitudinous strata of atmosphere that we encounter on a daily basis.

A mix of electronica, tribal beats and those heavenly and unexpected instruments lends this album a cohesive, retrospective feel. The physics of sound as well as the intimate relationship between word and music are delved into in a spectacular fashion. It is an intentionally weird album, and it is an album that can stand alone on its musical merits, with the accompanying apps providing a mere visual icing to the sonic cake.

If the listener allows the interplay of Björk’s unique musical philosophy and her intense curiosity for the physical aspects of sound to merge in their fullness, they will be treated to a harmonious, beautiful album that changes one’s relationship to music in general.

Emily Kuhn can be reached at [email protected]