It’s hard to tell if Björk is even interested in making pop music anymore. In spite of a promotional campaign heralding it as the wayward alt-pop diva’s return to form, Björk’s last record, Volta, was as meticulous and academic as any of her post-Homogenic esoterica. Not even a heavy artillery brass brigade and a tribe of live percussionists could give it a pulse.
So I found it hard to take Björk at her word when she assured a Guardian reporter at the Manchester International Festival that Biophilia was “absolutely” a pop record—and that was before she hedged that she maybe preferred “folk” since “the whole pop thing” struck her as “a bit superficial.” If Björk isn’t a pop musician, then she definitely isn’t a folk musician: In her admiration of the classical avant-garde, to say nothing of her techie production aesthetic, Björk transgresses nearly all of that genre’s norms of populism and, well, folksiness. Over the last two decades, the free spirit who introduced herself on Debut has aged into a prickly, smart, and severe performer who doesn’t mind coming off as pretentious in the pursuit of her art.
There’s no question that Volta is the album least loved by Björk fans (even the divisive Medúlla has its proponents, myself among them), but instead of channeling her energies into a surefire follow-up, Björk seems to have given the 10 songs that constitute Biophilia a supporting role in the New-Age-goes-New-Media Biophilia experience. The music press has been exceedingly generous in their coverage of the project: Simply by announcing it, Björk seems to have been ceded the matron-of-the-art-pop title she’s long jockeyed for, emerging as a global godmother to all things quirky and experimental. Which is to say nothing of the way that tech blogs have responded to her app suite, which is ultimately a lot hokier than the good press would have you believe. In unveiling Biophilia, Björk has passed on the standard promotional run and instead engaged in an interdisciplinary blitzkrieg, with live installations, interactive apps, specially engineered instruments, and an oddly didactic libretto that’s part modernist poetry and part Discovery Channel special, ensuring that no song on the album go unaccompanied by at least a dozen conversation pieces.
Which put me in the awkward position of simply not caring that my single favorite musician was being discussed more widely and enthusiastically than at any point in the last decade, as I took the whole hi-tech edutainment gimmick to be a pretty clear concession that Björk wasn’t sitting on the album that her fans were hoping for. First single “Crystalline” works if you’ll accept its culminating drum n’ bass fake-out as compensation for the limp chorus and goofy lyrics about gem formation, but the other promo app-singles have been significantly less galvanizing. “Cosmogony” and “Virus,” both gorgeous in a certain formal sense, but also somewhat dull and melodically inert, are fairly indicative excerpts from an album whose evocative sonics belie a shortage of truly memorable songs. The hyper-composed Biophilia sounds stultified and endlessly fussed over, but oddly incomplete at the same time. Björk’s vocals on songs like “Sacrifice” and “Solstice” sound flatly spoken rather than sung, and at 45 years old, her once-formidable wail is too hoarse and shouty to be the ace in the hole that it once was.
Still, I’m hesitant to chalk these shortcomings up to aging-diva wear and tear. By any objective standard, Björk’s voice has been preserved quite well, and it’s only where her most dramatic vocal pyrotechnics are concerned that there’s any question of physical ability. It seems more likely that, for want of inspiration or interest, Björk simply didn’t come up with any really winning pop numbers this time out. Biophilia works best when it eschews pop altogether, instead forging into dark, minimalist territory that’s occasionally reminiscent of Steve Reich. “Thunderbolt,” “Dark Matter,” and “Hollow” are the tracks on which Biophilia comes closest to establishing a sonic identity as rich as Homogenic or Medúlla’s. The dominant sound on these relatively somber numbers is a MIDI organ, not unlike what you’d here upon entering a haunted castle in Chrono Trigger or some other SNES fantasy. On “Hollow,” the organ skitters around wildly like a carnie’s calliope, suggesting Tom Waits in space, before Björk and her backup choir engage in some freaky harmonic singing about DNA.
From its midpoint on, Biophilia consists mostly of similarly dark and absorbing pieces. One of Björk’s kōans on “Thunderbolt” is “universal intimacy,” and that’s not a bad description of the album’s aesthetic, which combines Vespertine’s chilly skin contact with the reverent, even religious, invocations of Medúlla. And as on both of those albums, Björk frequently sings with a choir on Biophilia, though her interplay with the Icelandic choir that supports her favors jarring contrasts in tone to more accessible melodic counterpointing by a pretty sizable margin. If you didn’t care for Medúlla’s cacophonous multivocality, then you’ll find much of Biophilia to be difficult going.
“Mutual Core” might be the one track on Biophilia that will immediately resonate with the great many Björk fans for whom Post and Homogenic remain definitive. It’s a fascinating number on which Björk seemingly demonstrates how it is that an “Enjoy” or an “Army of Me” could emerge from Biophilia’s brand of minimalism. The effect is sort of like witnessing the birth of a star; here we’ve been floating, somewhat aimlessly, around Björk’s oddly eroticized solar system and finally we get some flash and drama. Interestingly enough, when the song reaches its climax, all chugging 808s and distorted bass, Björk sings, “This eruption undoes stagnation/You didn’t know I had it in me.” To be honest, after the first eight tracks of Biophilia, I had my doubts about whether she did, in fact, still have that kind of outburst in her, or if by undertaking this deep-space sojourn she had permanently abandoned the emotional landscapes of her peak work.
As much as the last four or so tracks do to redeem what is too often a failed and overly formal experiment in hyper-theoretical songcraft, the insoluble problem of Biophilia is that Björk has chosen to inflate what is ultimately one of her least essential musical statements to such spectacular proportions. It’s almost guaranteed to underwhelm. But then, we already know Björk’s philosophy where things like iPads and gravity harps are concerned: They’re modern things, like cars and such, and they’ve always existed, so why not use them to write songs about the most ancient and enduring aspects of our universe?
Label: Nonesuch Release Date: October 11, 2011 Buy: Amazon
Review: Cherry Glazerr’s Stuffed & Ready Rages Against a Hostile World
The L.A. trio’s third album is a cathartic expression of estrangement in a cruel world.4
Clementine Creevy has always had a playful streak. At 15, she recorded her first songs under the name ClemButt, and her current outfit, the Los Angeles trio Cherry Glazerr, gained notoriety for a spaced-out, miniature ode to grilled cheese on their 2013 EP Papa Cremp. With Stuffed & Ready, Creevy’s signature irreverence has been transposed into scathing exasperation. The album rages against a hostile, misogynistic world, and then directs its venom inward.
That rage becomes the operating principle of Stuffed & Ready, which is Cherry Glazerr’s most mature and complex album to date. The opening track, “Ohio,” is a barometer for the ensuing ferocity, as a brief, lo-fi prelude crumbles into propulsive guitar noise. The music video for lead single “Daddi,” in which a solitary orange humanoid navigates a turbulent sea of blue creatures, captures the sense of alienation, confusion, and self-abasement that permeates the album. “Who should I fuck, Daddy? Is it you?” Creevy sneers in her characteristic falsetto. Her lyrics often vacillate between affirmation and uncertainty, probing for empowerment in a world that consistently renders her existence invalid. On “Self Explained,” she confesses, “I don’t want people to know how much time I spend alone.”
Under the direction of Carlos de la Garza, who also produced 2017’s Apocalipstick, Stuffed & Ready is Cherry Glazerr’s most sonically sophisticated effort yet. Musically, “Stupid Fish” is a gripping mash-up of the Smiths and early Sleater-Kinney, with sulking distortion interspersed with melodic bursts of Johnny-Marr-inspired guitar play. “Juicy Socks,” perhaps the album’s one moment of breathing room, finds Creevy playfully quipping over a shimmering guitar and florid bassline, “I don’t want nobody hurt/But I made an exception with him/I’m so lucky I can breathe/When the others cannot swim.”
Stuffed & Ready’s fiery denouement, “Distressor,” oscillates from an arpeggiated guitar and rolling drumbeat to a headbanging refrain. “The only faces I can see/Are the faces I pushed away from me/So I can just be,” Creevy wails, repeating the word “be” like a mantra. The album isn’t always hopeful, but it isn’t hopeless either, as it consistently provides a cathartic release for Creevy’s fury.
Label: Secretly Canadian Release Date: February 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon