With ‘Biophilia,’ Bjork comes back to earth, just a little

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Chris Chafin

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Björk, godmother of ethereal indie pop, is back with today's release of what is more or less her seventh studio album, her inscrutable lyrical agenda fully intact.

Biophilia is also a signal to old fans that Björk is about to come back in style. After a decade of increasingly esoteric music former fans had drifted; they'll be delighted with this album, which mixes hard dance beats with the strings, xylophones, and all the spacey electronic sounds she’s been fascinated with since 2001’s Vespertine.

To find Biophilia’s closest progenitor in terms of musical style one has to dial back to 1997’s Homogenic; features of the standout tracks “Hyperballad” and “Hunter” are audible in Biophilia's “Mutual Core” and “Sacrifice,” with their Chemical Brothers–style crushing dance beats that are both ghostly and compelling.

This return to the past isn’t entirely surprising given the larger project surrounding Biophilia. When the title of the album was announced earlier this year it sounded like a riff on the word biography; the new Bjork.com, which came out at the time, was billed as "the place for all things Björk, past present and future." So, incorporating sounds from earlier in her career only makes sense. But the literal meaning of the title would be "love of life," and since this is Björk that means something planetary or even extraplanetary in its ambitions.

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Pointing one's browser to her website, which has been retrofitted to look like an amped up Asteroids game-screen, visitors are greeted with an audio track in which Björk explains, in her elven-tinted English, that the album title is really about “a love for nature, in all her manifestations, from the tiniest organism to the biggest red giant floating in the farthest realm of the universe.”

These make up the literal subject matter of the songs on Biophilia: Plate tectonics, the mechanics of viral infection, DNA, and interstellar bodies. And in her hands it works, becoming something poetic. Here’s Björk imagining herself as a virus, which features perhaps the most poetic use of the word “transmutate” this century: As the protein transmutates / I knock on your skin / and I am in . . . / My sweet adversary.

But Biophilia is also a masterfully constructed piece of music. The album tenses and relaxes like a muscle, with a song ending in paroxysms of thundering bass guitar, then moving to the next track's soft beginning; the rapid beats of “Crystalline” giving way to the the gentle choir and muted bass of “Cosmology.” The album’s most consistently uptempo track, “Mutual Core,” is followed by the serene Japanese strings of “Solstice.” This is something of a standard album trick but there's a reason producers still attempt to achieve perfection with it. Here the pacing feels supremely natural, and adds immeasurably to the life-obsession of the work.

The songs take their time, and with all the complex instrumentation nevertheless mostly leave space for Björk’s most distinctive instrument: Her voice. Several tracks, including “Virus,” “Thunder Bolt,” and “Cosmology” use faint electronics and layers of muted brass and vocals to let Björk sing her heart out, which she does without going overboard into histrionics. Even if you don’t exactly know what she’ saying, you get what she means. A few tracks, particularly “Crystalline” and “Mutual Core,“ are more crowded, overstuffed with instruments and beats, but make up for it by ranking with the most energetic work she’s ever produced, recalling the smiling, jumping Björk of 20 years ago. A few are a bit less accessible, and may leave listeners scratching their heads. The galloping woodwinds and synths on “Hollow,” for example, sound like discarded passages from an updated Peter the Wolf starring robots. These odder tracks, if nothing else, remind us that we’re listening to a Björk record, and we’re not always going to understand what’s going on.

The album is part of a suite of multimedia releases including iPhone and iPad apps which are supposed to complement the experience of Biophilia. At nearly a gigabyte (750 MB), they require a strong wireless connection and some patience to download. Those who brave the wait time (and clean out the seasonal Angry Birds apps cluttering their phone’s memory) will find “an extraordinary multimedia exploration of the universe and its physical forces, processes and structures” from a team of artists, designers, scientists, instrument makers, writers and software developers. Or, at least that’s what the description of it in the App Store says. I’ve listened to the album twice and written this entire review, and it has yet to fully download.

While Biophilia is easily the most satisfying and accessible record Björk has released this decade, it’s in a way the natural progression of the road she has been on for 10 years. In the 1990s, Björk was as likely to sing about love, sex, and other familiar grist for the pop mill: “Army of Me,” “Venus as a Boy,” and “It’s Oh So Quiet” are all profound and timeless meditations from the point of view of an actual human being rather than the point of view of a galaxy or a microbe.

Starting with Vespertine, Björk began been drifting farther and farther from us here on earth. Her songs began to concern themselves with—well, it was hard to say what they were about exactly. The harps and shimmering electronics and sound effects made by shuffling cards or tromping through snow followed her wherever she was going, to lyrics like Aurora / goddess sparkle / shoot me / beyond this suffer / the need is great.

It’s my pet theory that Björk died sometime in 2000, and has been recording and releasing albums from the afterlife ever since. With Biophilia, then, it's as though she's atomized and released herself into the universal slipstream, and is reporting on the myriad life-forms she's been inhabiting ever since, while still remembering the point of view of her human listeners who mostly want to dance. It’s a better record for it.