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?