Björk's Biophilia: A First Listen
Who doesn't have a strong opinion on Björk? Love me some Homogenic and Vespertine, hate me some Medulla, and I'm pretty sure the overrated Post and underrated Volta are about equal in quality. And for the stuff I haven't heard -- Telegram, Gling-Glo, various box sets and live crapanalia -- I fear the worst. Exciting lady though. Let's dance with her new album, Biophilia, which is officially out Oct. 10.
In a weird instance of art imitating art, Ms. Guðmundsdóttir begins by sinking to Joanna Newsom's level. After all, she damn near invented alt-preciousness, why let some new little harp-playing harpie run the place? Unfortunately, the taste of petty competition drowns this beatless thing out -- the same kind that kept me from hearing the brilliance in M.I.A.'s underrated "XXXO" for weeks just because she attempted to best Lady Gaga. Thing is, this isn't a nuance-rich mess to sort through in a few weeks. Björk, simplistic? Lest you accuse her of lacking ambition, she drags this harp-and-voice dirge out towards six minutes.
Only Björk could make a MIDI organ synthesizer sound disturbing and new. I feel like "Thunderbolt"'s motto of "craving miracles" is slightly at odds with this back-to-basics setup. Wouldn't she be more likely to get something striking from the Reactable? This is a good-ish song though -- it succeeds somewhat in spite of its retro analog-craft, and somewhat because of it. I like how the ominous tone is juxtaposed with myriad farts of the 1980s.
Björk's appeal is basically, "new toy." Look, Björk sampled an ice cube tray! Look, Björk made percussion out of a moving train! Look, Björk brought in a Japanese beatbox virtuoso/Lightning Bolt/Timbaland! So this is the single because it sounds like play. And when Björk plays -- in the kindergartener sense, not the musical -- that's why we love her. Here she dings around on an indeed "crystalline"-sounding glockenspiel of somesuch, before a surprise (and retro!) drum 'n' bass ending from what sounds like Squarepusher. It's unpredictable. But there's no glue.
That's a little dick to tempt us with a drum explosion and then belt a pulseless opera, Björk. Worse, this is the first track here to resemble a song with verses and choruses.
MIDI organ again, this time akin to a five-year-old trying to remember how the wedding march starts. This sounds almost improvisatory; can't tell if she's singing words or making them up. Likewise, I can't tell if the organ is playing notes. Sole coup de grace: is indeed dark. The harmonies are cool.
If she stuck to the pitch-black minimalism, this could be a very enjoyable late night record indeed. Better the glossolalia of "Dark Matter" or this track's demented chamber music than the lazy amelodic repetition of "Moon" or "Crystalline." Since ideal songform is off the table, I'm open to these somewhat arresting, unfinished symphonies, just because the idea of listening to a Björk rehearsal is intriguing. And that seems to be the idea (it's hard to figure out "the idea" on this record). Slowly, digital boombadoom overtakes her organ- and string-doodling. But is it art?
Between the schizo arrangement sense and the dinkly bells and treated pianos, she's clearly been listening to Aphex Twin's Drukqs. I can't tell if this grand exception is beautiful on its own terms, or if it's just a relief from all the tracks I'm not sure I'll want to hear twice. I think if this cascade of music boxes was sequenced on Vespertine at random, it wouldn't rock the boat. But it doesn't rock much of anything. The coda is easily the loveliest melody on this whole record.
All right, so the theme is definitely the MIDI demo, here with some kind of glassy faux-harp-guitar. She wants to fuse the cheaply minimal with the otherworldly maximal, cool. But these songs are half-baked at best. If you care, the "excitement" happens around two minutes, when a storm of drum machines does the same thing a storm of drum machines did for "Crystalline": very little. The tune is good, but it falls in and out of view. I like her impression of a choo-choo train at the end.
MIDI organ again, voice again, very little regard for rhythm elements that make disparate things go again. Until the two-minute mark of course (again), when speedy, distorted drums fly in and out... again. Is this the closest she's ever been to formulaic? These last few songs were Biophilia's best, though.
Plucking, singing, sighing. Sorry, that last one was me. By now I've wondered about three separate times if Medulla is as unlistenable as I remember. This album's not unlistenable, though I don't exactly like it, or see myself wanting to hear it ever again, and Medulla I distinctly remember wanting to crack, even though I couldn't make it to the Olympic theme that divided it in two. This one is listenable, but I won't.