Björk’s been promoting her forthcoming Biophilia app/album/thing with the kind of dodgy auteur shenanigans that may not translate directly into hype (which, thanks to Twitter, is now more or less objectively quantifiable), but which do have the minimal advantage of preempting any kind of parody. Her website’s been rejiggered into a trippy, interactive mobile, her upcoming concerts will apparently feature, among other Seussian contraptions, a “30-foot pendulum that harnesses the planet’s gravitational pull to create musical patterns,” and in recent interviews she’s been throwing the word “app” around in a fashion equally suggestive of futurism and senility. Fine by me. Björk’s most esoteric album to date, 2004’s Medúlla, is also among her best, and so my policy is to indulge Mrs. Matthew Barney in all pretensions so long as the music works.
Cue “Crystalline,” the first proper single in three years from the only artist on the planet who introduces a new album with a song about the geometric substructures of sound waves (I think). Consider it this Björkophile’s pleasure to announce that we can finally call the music the most exciting thing about an upcoming Björk project, a fact that owes almost entirely to the track’s final minute. For most of its runtime, “Crystalline” is a comfortable, even conservative entry in the Icelandic singer’s repertoire: The interplay of synthetic drum beats, bells, and glassy percussive textures suggests a cleaner Vespertine, while Björk’s elliptical vocal melody (main hook: “Crystal-line in-ter-nal neb-u-laaaaa”) wouldn’t sound out of place on Medúlla. It’s not like Björk to play safe in the sonic sandbox, but after 2007’s underwhelming and uncharacteristically earthbound Volta, a self-conscious return-to-form(lessness) is hardly unwelcome. For the most part, “Crystaline” sounds like it was engineered to have fans sighing, “Good to have you back.”
For the most part. “Crystalline” climaxes with a dramatic percussion break that counts immediately among the most visceral moments in the Björk canon, abruptly shifting from placid abstraction to the kind of liminal sonics broached on “Pluto” and “Declare Independence.” The distorted torpor underlies the track’s heavier beats, then threatens to overtake “Crystalline” entirely, while Björk, still poised, sings about conquering anxiety. In a minute’s time we’ve moved from an ordered cosmos to entropy, from Aristotelian physics to chaos theory. And suddenly I’m anticipating an album that only a week ago sounded like a rejected Smithsonian exhibit. It really is good to have her back.