Björk has always been a marketing dream. If you had Debut, chances are you also had the poster on the wall. With every release there are remixes, special edition box sets, DVDs, picture books, collector vinyls and so on – case in point, Björk’s most recent single has a series of versions available on four individual vinyl pressings. A grown-up indie-kid’s Hello Kitty, merchandise is a part of the deal with Björk.
By addressing a concept poised by her own poster boy, David Attenborough – “how sound works in nature, exploring the infinite expanse of the universe, from planetary systems to atomic structure” – Björk’s latest album, Biophilia, is part of a multimedia project that comes fully embedded in merchandise: a suite of interactive apps for owners of an iPhone, iTouch or iPad. There’s a “mother” app, that gives a map of the cosmos with 12 planets. To explore each planet, an individual app must be downloaded, and each planet corresponds to a song on the record by the same name. It is Björk’s intention that this record be autonomous. So without ever clasping eyes on any of these apps, how does Biophilia stand up as musical album?
Conceptually it is a continuation of Volta, “where as Volta is more about antropology, this is kind of without the humans.” Musically it works in the same spectrum too: organic sprawling songs that pulse with the fluidity of nature that suit the directionless manner in which Björk sometimes, well quite often, sings. There are electronics and polyrhythmics that hark back to Homogenic, and when she nails a melody, there are traces of Post-era pop too. Breaking new ground by revisiting old, the drum and bass break down on ‘Crystalline’ is cathartic to the point of goose-bumps and head spins. Elsewhere there is true inventiveness; new instruments developed for purpose of composition and recording – a Tesla Coil is used and something called a gameleste (a cross between a gamelan and a celesta).
There’s timpani percussion, Icelandic chorals, rich organ, jarring digitals, grandiose bass, appropriate space and dramatic shifts. As a piece of art, Biophilia is very beautiful, there is no question of that. But songs about tectonics, genetics and human biorhythm are not easily communicated, and as just a musical record there is little by way of engagement, especially in the mid-section with the ‘Hollow’ and ‘Dark Matter’. Lyrically strong, ‘Cosmogony’ paints a whimsical tale of silver foxes and black eggs but it is the rhythmic moments of ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Mutual Core’ that carry hooks on a record that otherwise plays out like an opera … one without a stage set.
More than just a music-box biology lesson, Biophilia successfully marries technology and nature. Like her subject matter, Björk is perpetually evolving with audacious innovation. Unlike them, well certainly nature, she is not always in tune. There’s something lost in the presentation of Biophilia on record, there’s a missing dimension. If the album was released before the apps, and without any mention of them, then maybe it would be digested differently. But the knowledge that these apps exist leaves a feeling of want. Now that is clever marketing.