‘Biophilia’ Conceptually Brave, Musically Limited

Bjork -- 'Biophilia' -- Nonesuch -- 3 STARS

It seems inconceivable that any realm of Björk’s Biophilia project could be seen as lacking in grandeur. The Icelandic electro-pop enchantress’s multimedia goliath encompasses a book, an “album” of iPad apps, a set of special tuning forks, a full-length LP, and apparently more as yet unannounced components. That the album avoids bloated overindulgence is miraculous. Surprisingly, though, its only weak spot is an element of restrictive simplicity. Björk’s lyrics and sonic architecture almost align in a titanic vision for “Biophilia,” but the album’s stylistically constrained instrumental strategy stunts that conceptual richness.

Björk’s commanding lyrical and vocal personality drives the album. On “Biophilia,” her persona is that of a prophetess enthralled by the natural world. She casts beautiful celestial and molecular meditations—including the fascinating creation myth revue “Cosmogony” and the awestruck DNA ode “Hollow”—and constructs surreal conceits to locate herself in the songs, with lines like “no one imagines the light shock I need / and I’ll never know / from whose hands deeply humble / dangerous gifts as such to mine come,” on “Thunderbolt.” She tends toward elliptical wordiness and eyebrow-raising metaphors—for instance, “like a mushroom / on a tree trunk / as the protein transmutates / I knock on your skin,” from “Virus”—which occasionally reach laughable pretension. But by and large, their abrasive unconventionality feeds into the unhinged persona crafted by her lyrics.

She translates her rapturous lyricism into a character that she cultivates across the album. In a dramatic—and typically technically spectacular—vocal performance, she alternately slips into destabilized and confident modes. Her verses throb with uneven timing and violent dynamic fluctuations; her choruses crest in assured lullabies, as on “Cosmogony,” or the bursts of nervy dance-pop featured on standout “Crystalline.” She also layers resonant backup vocals, and in keeping their volume high and using them as prominent countermelodies, she elevates the parts beyond mere background harmonies.

She comes appreciably close to matching her lush and volatile vocal performances with some extent of instrumental variation. She rarely layers each track with more than one or two keenly chosen instruments at a time, with each clearly audible in vibrant but futuristically minimal fusions. Björk rarely uses the same sound twice: the toy-piano twinkles at the heart of “Moon” remain distinct from the gentle drips on “Virus” and the tingling “gameleste” (an instrument commissioned for Biophilia) on “Crystalline.” Her sparse mixing also isolates the fine variations within each melody, and her regular alterations lend the album a mimetic fragility. Björk’s rejection of standard pop structures as well as conventional time signatures—rare time signature 17/8 makes an appearance—add further intrigue to an elegant musical landscape.

But these complexities pale next to the vastness of her lyrical vision. Despite the small-scale shifts, Björk’s instrumental consistency proves limiting. Even though Björk rarely reuses exactly identical instruments, the differences between each amount to small, comparatively unremarkable touches. The melodies on “Moon” and “Virus,” the moodier figure of “Mutual Core,” and the hollow tones of “Sacrifice” all demonstrate a preoccupation with high, tremulous tunes. Her beats all pulse with the industrial adrenaline of dubstep, and she sticks to an electronic feel for her even rarer bass parts. Her unusual song structures, even, seem to deviate from regular formats in recurring ways—the identically structured “Mutual Core” and “Sacrifice” vacillate between long verses and briefer, catchy refrains, and both lack intros and bridges. “Hollow” and “Dark Matter” define another strategy, in which Björk draws a stream of consciousness across an entire track. These moves tease by subverting pop structures, but they fail to captivate like the expansive narratives of her previous works. The artist balances cohesiveness and exploration a little too conservatively, and the sonic world she shapes feels adventurous only within awkwardly narrow boundaries.

That lyrical depth and imagination, accompanied by some instrumental elaboration, still make “Biophilia” an enchanting, self-possessed work. But due to the limited dimensions in which its permutations unravel, the instrumentation falls short: Björk’s cosmic subject matter chafes against its tight frame, and it in turn seems feeble next to her lyrics’ scope.

—Staff writer Austin Siegmund-Broka can be reached at asiegemund-broka@college.harvard.edu.

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