Saturday, November 5, 2011

ALBUM REVIEW: Björk - Biophilia

By Steve Jones.

After the disappointment that was Volta, Björk has once again returned however briefly to Earth to give us her seventh LP Biophilia, a high concept, tree hugging, iPad soundtracking, melody wandering, precious sounding, and pretentious sounding beast of an album.

But is it any good?

Well, to get this sentiment out of the way first, I couldn't care less about this being is an "iPad" album with "apps" for each "song."  I'm sure they're cool to watch and to play around with, but I don't own an iPad, so I have no frame of reference there.  When I listen to this album, as with any album, all I care about is the music and how it affects me, so that is what this review will reflect.  It neither gains nor loses points in my book for anything else.

I had my best experience listening to Biophilia while taking a walk a few weeks ago on a crisp and cool autumn day.  All of my attention was focused either on the music or on the beautiful Boulder fall foliage, and it was this experience which prompted me to write a review.  Prior to that day, my feelings on the music were pretty lukewarm, and I wasn't passionate enough about it to consider writing anything.  And that highlights one of the "flaws" of this album, namely that the music is extremely restrained, subtle, abstract, minimal, and perhaps too sparse for its own good.  Any enjoyment a listener is going to get from this album is going to be dependent upon their patience for 20th century compositions.  If enjoy the airy and plinkety-plink kind of material by people like Toru Takemitsu, you'll be in much better shape to enjoy this record right away.

The best advice I can give you otherwise is to get a pair of headphones and take a walk with Biophilia, like I did, because then the music unfolds into a delicately beautiful and haunting experience.  The harp on "Moon" resonates, the brass in "Cosmogeny" is warm and full, and the explosions of sound on "Mutual Core" are quite chilling.  But many of the songs here are not so much what I would call "songs" as "sketches" or "text-setting."  It hearkens back to the day when composers would set a poem to music and try to match the themes of the poem with the sound of the music.  For example, "Crystalline" really has what I would call a crystalline sound, one which is delicate yet multi-faceted, with sounds bouncing around like light bounces in and out of a diamond.  One could also argue that the electronic sounds in that track are in reference to the fact that crystals can be manufactured these days.  The sparse organ and layered vocals of "Dark Matter" hint at the mysterious and eerie nature of actual dark matter.  And so on.

Many of the complaints I've heard about this album are that it is too pretentiously half-baked and just sounds like the desperate cry of an aging artist begging to be relevant again.  Talk about cynical!  I do think this album is pretentious, but I actually appreciate it being so, and I wish more artists were willing to ask too much of their audience.  The majority of the tracks ("Moon," "Hollow," "Dark Matter," "Solstice," etc.) have cyclical arrangements, wandering vocals, and don't conform to a modern, normal song structure.  Those which do possess accessible elements are those which more immediately pop out on your first listen.  "Cosmogony," for instance, actually has verses and a chorus, as do "Virus" (kind of), "Sacrifice," and "Mutual Core." "Mutual Core" also has the most obvious piece of text setting, with the climaxing vocals, instruments, and electronics reflecting the explosion of a volcano.

But my favorite track is "Hollow."  Yeah, the one that has Björk pounding on an organ and doing little else for six minutes.  First, I love the organ sound in the beginning, where it barely sounds like an organ at all and just sounds like air being blown out of a tube, with only the hint of pitch.  Unfortunately, I don't know too much about the instrument, so I don't know exactly how that effect was achieved, but it sounds so cool and new to me.  And I love how incessant a presence the organ is throughout the piece.  It keeps playing without regard for establishing a melody or time signature, and even when it cuts out for those brief moments, I can still feel its presence looming.  The song creates a lot of excellent tension in a very nontraditional way, and that makes it stand out to me.

Before I conclude I feel I should clarify--when I say a song is nontraditional, or when I say a song is conformational, I am not implying that either one is better than the other.  I believe Biophilia is a very exciting record, and I do think you have to possess a certain mindset about music in order to appreciate it, but I don't believe that enjoying this record makes you a "better" music listener.  People enjoy and dislike music for all kinds of reasons, and I am sure there are plenty of people who hate this album but still "get" it, while there are also people who like this album simply because Björk's voice is in it (and it is stellar as always).  Neither is more correct than the other, so no need to get all up in a huff because I am championing pretentious music.  In fact, one of the most accessible songs on the album, "Virus," is also the most gorgeous one, and I could her Björk sing that refrain all day.

This review strikes me as far too indulgent and rambling, but writing it is the first thing I am doing after sleeping for over 12 hours, so I'm feeling punchy and loquacious.  The point I would like you, the reader, to take away is that I really like Biophilia.  It is an ambitious and pretentious and demanding, but also full of great sounds, great images, and great songs.  Maybe Björk can no longer write the kind of pop songs that gained her the fame she enjoys, but she can still create some fantastic art, and that is what Biophilia is.

Score: I don't have one. Listen to it. That is an order.

Since the nature of this album exists outside of the realm of what I have been assigning scores to for the past year, I don't feel comfortable putting a number to Biophilia.  A hearty recommendation is what it gets from me.  I hope you listen to it, and I hope you tell me what you think in the comments!

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