Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Review: Björk - Biophilia
One doesn't get more love-em-or-hate-em than Björk. Her music is easily recognizable not only by her unarguably virtuoso voice, but by the strange music she creates. She is like the hipster Lady Gaga in that she was doing it weird when Gaga was in diapers. Seriously, she's been a star in her native Iceland since she was a little kid. That can't go unrecognized.
She hasn't exactly been unknown in the US either. Her first US album came out in 1993, presumably the time she started singing in English for a wide audience, as well. Since then, for me, her records have been pretty much hit-and-miss. By far my favorite is her last album, Volta, and Homogenic is also great, but Post is only so-so and Medulla is, for the most part, bad. I'd say this album comes in somewhere between the two former albums. But despite the quality, it's hard to argue that she has amassed much popularity and attention over the years, selling millions of albums worldwide.
There may be a slight bias against the album for me considering the purpose of the music on this album, which doesn't really pertain to me. Biophilia is an album of music for an iOS app of the same name, meant to be educational for children, revealing truths about the relationship between music, nature and the universe. As a result, much of the music in the album follows that theme. Obviously, there's absolutely nothing wrong with all the songs in an album following a certain theme. We in the know call that a "concept album." This, however, is music meant to accompany an app, and in some ways may fall into the category of a soundtrack. I don't usually buy soundtracks or scores for movies because it's too often that they don't work on their own; they're meant to accompany a movie or a video game, and as a stand-alone product it's trying to illicit an emotional response that just isn't there without the visual accompaniment. But this isn't quite that, either. Clearly, upon listening to the music, all of it stands alone well enough to listen to separate from the app. Having not experienced the app, I can't speak for its merits, so this will be a review of only the music.
Once you hear anything by Björk, you will understand why I can't just characterize her music. Like Radiohead, every album is different. Volta is an album on an epic scale, utilizing combinations of heavy beats and horn orchestras to make both exciting and sentimental songs. Medulla is mostly experimental as it stretches the limits of music beyond the breaking point, creating mostly garbage but spawning a couple of really good ideas, like "Oceania," a song that's entirely a capella despite sounding to the contrary. Biophilia is very, very simplistic throughout. Not quite empty, but very sparse and rather spacey. I suppose it needs to be spacey, since the universe is the main them.
Many of the songs do a good job in keeping the theme. "Cosmogony," for instance, the theme song of the app, is the only song of Björk's that is entirely understandable upon the first listen. The lyrics are about various theories of how the universe came into existence, from creationism to the big bang, while utilizing very spacious and quiet harmonies behind Björk's lead vocals. ("Heaven's bodies whirl around me.") "Moon" also keeps this theme, making the rhythm and melody simplistic like the big rock in the sky. "Dark Matter" is one of the most mysterious and unique songs of her's you'll likely ever hear, and that's saying something. This obviously relates to the theory of the same name that 80% of the universe's mass is completely undetectable, or "dark." "Crystalline" invokes a vision of playing with crystals, and "Solstice" reminds me of snow slowly falling to the ground on a dark winter evening. Some songs, however, don't really work. "Thunderbolt," though genius in musical content, does not quite fit the role described by the title. I don't know what was going on in "Mutual Core," or "Hollow," and the middle ground here seems to be "Virus," which calls to mind the simplicity and innocence of a virus, but does little beyond that.
I'd also like to point out an observation I have about the album cover. Often times when I listen to an album, I tend to associate the album cover with the music. I think of the colors as a sort of background for the music. Sometimes it doesn't always work so well, like in the case of, say, OK Computer by Radiohead, which uses lots of cold colors and is dominated by whites and a few black lines, but that doesn't lend itself so well to the music, which is not cold or black and white. In this case, cool, mysterious black and the standout orange hair provide a much closer resemblance to the music on the disc, which is itself cool, mysterious and sometimes fiery.
Overall, Björk's loyal fans will eat this up just like they have with everything else she's done. For those who don't already listen to her music, she can be very hard to get into. Often her music is amelodic or difficult to enjoy due to the strange keys and scales she tends to favor. Of course, her more conventional music (the most accessible song on this album is "Cosmogony,") is, in my opinion, much better than her experimental music, but both take some time to get used to, considering her strange musical tendencies and, most of all, her Icelandic accent, which bothered me for some time before I got over it. If you're just getting into Björk, I recommend starting with Volta or Homogenic, which arguably contain her best songs. If you've been a longtime fan, I'm happy to report this album passes with flying colors.
"Crystalline" (This is not the album version; it is shorter and has a slightly altered ending.)
"Cosmogony" (Also slightly altered, likely to keep the copyrights from taking it down, but the only version I could find. Sorry about that, but if you can find a better version, please post it in the comments.)
"Virus" (Also slightly altered, explicitly labeled as being to avoid copyright infringement. This one is set to that Assassin's Creed: Revelations trailer from E3. I have no idea why.)