October 11, 2011

Test Spins: Bjork, Biophilia

Print More

Iceland needs your help. Their economy is in worse shape than ours and their most recent export was a volcanic plume that managed to piss off the entire volcano-less Western world. Sigur Rós, pioneers of music existing beyond the infinite, should have ended their hiatus and released another album of spacey extraterrestrial speak to get their country back on track. Jónsi and co. won’t budge. We thus turn to the most popular statesman in Icelandic history: Björk. The proprietor of the swan dress that your mother remembers from the Oscars  returns after four years off with a eclectic LP that consists of individual iPad apps for each song. They are, according to her, expressions “of the music, the story and the idea.” The entire project is one potpourri of science, nature, technology, geology, love, bedlam and the bizarre from one crazy mind. Uh-oh.

Well, I build up the insanity of the album yet forgo mentioning its much-deserved qualifier: it works. Björk is an agent of chaos as well as beauty. She deftly clashes the two to find that beauty shines within chaos and chaos boils underneath beauty. Her peculiar (a platitude of a word here) 90s hit, “Hyperballad,” consisted of lucid, intimate lyrics of a girl dreaming of throwing all she owns — and even herself — off a cliff only to find solace in her lover’s arms upon waking up. Not a typical approach to love, but more than effective with her puling delivery and the internally resonating bassline. The instrumentation of her songs always contains curiosities, and especially so on Biophilia. Four harpists layer the gentle opener “Moon”, and demented spurts of church organ haunt “Hollow”. She even customized a Tesla coil (the dramatic lightning generator David Bowie walks through in The Prestige) for additional sound effects in the aptly-titled “Thunderbolt.” Better yet, she  — or, more accurately, her poor roadies — is lugging that mad device around for her tour.

No matter how many machines creak underneath, her voice still reigns as her supreme asset, a beautiful instrument unleashed with her polarizing manipulation. Björk has gotten flak for decades now from those who do not care for her pipes and this album will not convert the disenchanted. At the very least, you must admire the craft she endows in every syllable or hushed utterance. She sings dynamically, moving up and down the register and dipping into perfect harmony or shocking dissonance as quickly as she pulls away. Peruse pictures of Iceland, and her take on vocals may even resemble the oscillating terrain of her homeland. She scales icy mountains like the wind only before plummeting off a plateau the next moment. Her venomous rebuke of a lover, rift with such winning geological images as “as fast as your fingernail grows/the Atlantic ridge drifts,” “Mutual Core” harbors a contempt best emoted through her triumphant delivery of “you didn’t know I had it in me.” That voice which sounds so grand also feels tender, vulnerable on other tracks as “Moon.” In a harsh landscape of cold, she is alone wishing to “once again be reborn.” She receives her wish, finding warmth in the multiple dubs of her own vocals she cushions around herself, declaring herself “all birthed and happy.” Bizarre? Yes, though beautiful in its abstract confessional style that doesn’t self pity but throws all on the table, daring the listener to digest it all.

Compounding such an idiosyncratic style is Björk’s curiosity with the cosmos, a theme in every track here. She whispers gibberish in the nonsensical “Dark Matter,” composed in free time to convey the struggle of codifying that elusive medium. “Cosmogony”, the title of which refers to the study of how existence came to, well, exist, is a very Björk track, as she sings without much accompaniment. Some may not dig, but her connection between being, faith and music as the ultimate source of all makes for a heartfelt study. This all culminates to the standout track of Biophilia and front-runner for Song of the Year, lead single “Crystalline.” Innocent xylophone strains prance underneath a vocal line that sounds like it is sung from a solitary confinement cell until reaching the limitless expanse of the universe, and returning back again for the microscopic fury of an atom splitting. The jaw-dropper of an ending packs its punch from the machine gun barrage of beats and out-of-sync moments of silence that are the fitting moments of calm before the firestorm. Show me a dubstep artist who matches this euphoria.

I twiddled with the iPad app and played a surprisingly intuitive game built on the beats and vibe of “Crystalline”. It is solid and even fun, like some psychedelic inverse of Tempest. As for advancing the theme of the album, I am not sure if that is apt, but the focus is already clear. Björk gazes at the stars and marvels at the unseen expanse of it all.  Not unlike this year’s Terrence Malick film The Tree of Life. She wonders aloud of the truths that evade us all, only through eccentric, occasionally kick-ass music. Iceland, your hero has returned! Good luck finding the answers to your worldly problems, though.  We just want to stare into space.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos