Review: Bjork – Biophilia

A stunning and surprising return from everybody's favorite diminutive Icelandic elf-woman.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

The new Bjork album, Biophilia, is her first record of new material in over four years. It’s also at the forefront of technology. The diminutive Icelandic pop star is releasing the album at the same time she releases each song as an “app” from Apple. Fans can hear the songs, explore their origins and, in some cases, remix the tune itself. It could be the dawning of a new way for artists to deliver their music and for a legion of fans raised on the digital platform to become part of the experience. You know what though?

None of it matters.

The technology, the apps, the remixes, the involvement with Apple, all of it pales in comparison to the undeniable fact that Biophilia is simply a phenomenal album. No matter how experimental Bjork gets musically, her most powerful weapon is her voice. Nothing sounds like it. Bjork crosses a crisp, almost digital natural timber with an encompassing and vulnerable angelic sound. She could sing the ingredients from a cereal box and they would become the romantic musings of an other-worldy presence. Biophilia has many elements to it but the whole project rests on her voice. The music flows like water around the stone cliff of the vocals. It bends to them, surrounds them but never takes the focus away from them.

“Moon” is the perfect opener for Biophilia. Slight strings play beneath a whimsical guitar and Bjork is allowed to just sing. The song is minimalism at its best. The vocals expand and contract, wind behind the strings and then burst forth. When the harmonies come in the power is unreal and yet never falters from being pretty. “Thunderbolt” actually grows out of “Moon”, with a digital Cello playing new host to Bjork’s voice. Abruptly “Thunderbolt” stops and silence hangs for two or three seconds before Bjork returns with the Cello and this time a synth backing her. The song plays briefly and stops again, returning now with sounds of the ocean, a slight beat and massive harmonies. It’s wonderful to actually listen to the song being built while listening to it.

The single “Crystalline” returns Bjork to familiar territory involving beats and childlike bells. It’s a more upbeat track but the vocals make sure it never becomes something that feels wrong for the theme of the album. “Cosmonogy” is the most beautiful song on the entire album. A fragile framework of music creates a vast and dark area for Bjork to fill with her voice. The song speaks to the beginning of the Universe and somehow manages to invoke that idea. Imagine a song written for the first time sunlight beamed through the darkness and the stars woke up and began shining. That’s what “Cosmonogy” sounds like.

To use a literary reference, the song “Hollow” comes across like the musical accompaniment to Ray Bradbury’s “The Halloween Tree”, the story of a group of friends led through time and space by a mysterious spirit as they try to save their dying friend. The book feels like Fall and “Hollow” sounds like the season combined with the spooky and a dash of the surreal. “Virus” screams out to be a soundtrack song for a film about the depths of the ocean. Biophilia brings inspiration from literature, nature and technology. Much like Bjork herself, the record is a conduit to a better world.  

Bjork represents the best idea of what a pop star truly is. So much in the genre is pre-packaged and exists largely from a blueprint laid out by research companies and advertising firms. Bjork’s music is completely original and totally in the moment. Not to say Bjork doesn’t plan her songs, but she never allows them to sound that way. There’s freshness to every song, a feeling that it happened right there and whatever was flowing from Bjork’s imagination was recorded at that instant. I also love how Biophilia experiments with silence and spaces. You can feel an actual distance between each instrument and the vocals. It never sounds hollow but rather vast, as if the album was capturing all those empty spaces and silent moments we forget to notice.

Biophiliais a perfect reaction to Bjork’s 2007 album Volta. A wonderful record in its own right, Volta was abuzz with multiple layers of sound. Biophilia steps back from that idea and gives Bjork space to sing. Each musical moment is executed perfectly, never too much or too little. Biophilia is constantly surprising and always make you feel something. It’s another notch in the belt of woman who continues to redefine who she is and how she relates to the idea of being an artist.