As society converges with technology at a dizzying pace, the urge to return to our primal roots grows stronger, yet the path more foreign. People are more connected than ever, yet feel hopelessly alone at times staring at their glowing screens. Technology reaches impressive levels of intelligence that make us question what truly makes us human. We are organic and of the earth, and even the best machines are not. Perhaps if we better understand our origin and the planet we are helping to spin faster into entropy, then we will understand ourselves. This strange juxtaposing of technology and nature has become a prevalent theme in music this year. Radiohead’s The King of Limbs was their most electronic album thus far, yet steeped in the roots of a thousand year old tree. Tori Amos’ Night of Hunters was recorded digitally and nature themes were present throughout. Finally, after much anticipation and a few delays we have Björk’s latest opus, Biophilia: a love letter to nature and the universe at large, created with the bleeding edge of technology. Part learning device part game, it blends the digital and music experience together in a fun and interactive iPhone/iPad application that redefines the parameters of what an album consists of. Nature and technology have never come together in music in such a unique, forward thinking way before.
There have been hints of her obsession nature throughout her career: her collection of early material was called Family Tree and included a song titled “Nature Is Ancient” (also appears on Volumen DVD) and 2008’s one-off single was titled “Nattura” that benefitted an environmental preservation campaign. The term biophilia is based on a theory that mankind has an inherent link with other living systems as well just being a variation of biophile, which would be someone who loves life. Biophilia expands her fascination with nature into a full-blown scientific musical. It’s her most ambitious work to date and ranges from songs about biology, astronomy and geology to creation theory. All of which relates back her emotions and how they can be parallels for these subjects.
The sound of gently plucked harp strings eases the listener into the experience. On “Moon” Björk sings of the cycles of the moon and tides of the oceans and how they represent renewal and starting over. The song immediately feels warm and intimate, having a very Vespertine feel to it. In fact, the album as a whole feels like the science geek sister of Vespertine, instrumentation many times having harps and twinkling music box sounds. However, the past decade hasn’t been for naught as the layered, gorgeous vocals of Medulla seem to have strongly influenced her performance here. In “Thunderbolt” a dark, sickly sputtering electronic beat carries the song as the vocals build into a cascade of harmonizing Björks as she sings of “too often craving miracles.” It’s raw and Spartan in arrangement, yet haunting.
Just as one might be wondering if any traditional melodies might pop up, “Crystalline,” the album’s lead single comes to life quietly as she describes nebular, growing rocks that spread out like her hands. A fantastic almost dubstep-like beat joins in and by the climax turns into a cathartic breakdown of intense drum-n-bass that shoots the song into the stratosphere. It’s one of her best songs in ages and will certainly make one crave repeated listens. From there things take a reverent turn as “Cosmogony” breathes life into the stories of creation from different perspectives, sounding like a sacred hymn with pop sensibilities. Amazingly she seems to take each song topic and match the subject matter with its sonic equivalent and nowhere is it more apparent than “Dark Matter” where organs and vocals sound as if they are faintly emitted from a space where no light shines.
Unfortunately this pairing of subject and sonics has its downfall as well. “Hollow” feels as empty as its name. Choirs coo and organ stabs appear throughout, but it goes nowhere and is the weakest, most obtuse track of the bunch. Thankfully “Virus” cleanses the palette beautifully with more Vespertine-like xylophones and music boxes as she poetically compares her love to that of a virus attaching itself to a host. “Sacrifice” like many of the tracks begins quietly before gathering steam with a bass-ridden beat as she pleads to one selfish, stubborn partner to recognize her sacrifices and reach out before she is lost.
The best is saved for next-to-last track “Mutual Core.” Before what sounds like a medieval dirge has time to settle, a powerful beat smashes into the listener like a fist, skittering and slamming as her vocals match the ferocity and she wails, “you didn’t know I had it in me, you didn’t know…” It’s a show-stopping moment and is easily already in this journalist’s top tracks of the year. After the therapeutic and fiery release of “Core,” Björk takes our hand and gently walks us into a Zen garden feeling of reflection on “Solstice.” Accompanied only by the plucking of strings, she once again reminds us similarly to “Moon” that everything has cycles and what was once dark will be light again. It is a feeling of hope and positivity that leaves the listener in a better place than before.
Honestly, one couldn’t ask for a better Björk album at this point. It’s the most inspired and engaging she’s been since the oft-mentioned in this article Vespertine. But apparently not everyone feels this way, and since it’s already been out a week and the reviews are everywhere, it feels like my duty to parse through the mainstream media and user reviews on iTunes and make sense of them. It seems like an album where people either get it and love it or they don’t. Many high profile reviewers say she sounds “tired” and that her lyrics are too easy, and user reviews complain about lack of a “melody” or “where’s the song?” However, I don’t think there’s a problem with Björk’s lyrics, songwriting or even melodies. On the contrary, they sound absolutely exquisite. It just depends on whether you’re willing to venture into more abstract places than your average pop music goes. She’s moved on from pop and expecting another “I Miss You” or “Human Behavior” is akin to people wishing Radiohead would make another “Creep” or “Fake Plastic Trees.” It’s just not where their heads are at. Perhaps it’s time we expand our definitions of melody, analyze the natural world around us and grow as an audience in the ways these artists have. In doing so we just may discover new things about both ourselves and the world we live in.
Written by Jarad Matula