Over the span of 25 years, Bjork has slowly turned herself from the passionate pixie of The Sugarcubes into a living work of art. She releases a new record and other artists stop what they’re doing to measure music’s newest direction. Listeners bicker about whether her newest releases are just plain weird or too far ahead of their time. That goes for “Vespertine” (2001), “Volta” (2007) as well as her latest release, “Biophilia”. The name ‘Bjork’ has become synonymous with eccentricity, diminutive allure, volcanic volatility, strangeness, unmitigated self-expression, boundless creativity, and artistic integrity.
Her artistry always carries with it a childish exuberance for newness, a reverence for nature, and a keen ear for building arrangements out of sounds that seem incongruous. Her greatest asset and crutch is the freedom she feels to indulge and be impulsive. She can be both puzzling and breathtaking. Bjork can build cathedrals out of the earth, literally. In her solo years, an old television documentary showed Bjork recording found-sounds in her home country of Iceland. She pocketed the sounds of the ocean thanks to electronic gadgetry, that she’d later distort and use in her music. The breakthrough video for “Birthday” (1988), back when she fronted The Sugarcubes, found the singer and band sitting at a table pitched in the middle of geothermal waters, a vision that combined the beauty of natural wintry elements with musical ones. As difficult as Bjork may be to grasp for first-time listeners or curiosity-seekers, with her fantasy-land imagery and highly idiosyncratic musical style, she’s upfront about the focus of “Biophilia”. The album looks at nature, patterns, and structure, via cosmic view and microcosm. But it’s not as dry as all that. In part, “Biophilia” is also about finding a spirit-level, or one’s place in a seemingly infinite world full of so many things that are delicately finite. It’s the continuation of her previous album, “Volta”, which began with a song, “Earth Intruders”, and moved across images of oceans, passions, fear, and that sense of fascination with interconnection (“Vertebrae by Vertebrae”) expounded on in the body mechanics and processes of stars, galaxies, nebulae in “Biophilia”.
The opening track, “Moon”, begins with a bizarre look at the gods, and in Bjork’s own pagan-polytheistic way she re-creates her own myth of creation: “As the lukewarm hand of the gods came down and gently picked my adrenaline pearls / They placed them in their mouths / And rinsed all of the fear out / Nourished them with their saliva.” She also sings about another creation-tale in “Cosmogony”, a story about a silver fox and a cold black egg, that feels as suited for mythology as it might the work of science-fiction writer Terry Prachett in his ‘Discworld’ series. Bjork moves in and out of songs that are part world-constructs and musical love essays through the lens of Scientific American. The song ‘Dark Matter’ is a haunting, reverential beauty of twisted vocal harmonics and low-rumbling organ tremors that sound like the musical imaginings of universal expansion. This stunningly eccentric album is also and expansion in it’s own right, meant to be experienced as a series of apps via Apple’s i-Pad, where the listener can help re-compose songs. It’s Bjork’s way of dissolving the borders of music. “Biophilia” exists as CD, record, MP3s, with visual accompaniment and layers of online interaction.
Bjork has always been fascinated with large concepts: Love in 1993’s “Aeroplane”: “How come out of all the people in the world / Only one can make me complete”, human connection in 1993’s “Human Behavior”: “There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic / To human behaviour / But yet so, yet so irresistible / And there’s no map, sexuality”, primitivism in 1997’s “Hunter”: “I’m going hunting / I’m the hunter / I’ll bring back the goods / But I don’t know when”, the overly-definitive nature of modern religious belief in 2007’s “Wanderlust”: “I am leaving this harbour / Giving urban a farewell / Its habitants seem too keen on God / I cannot stomach their rights and wrong”, and complex sexuality in songs like “Birthday” and the climax-suggestive, “Big Time Sensuality”, with its lyricism about the hardcore, intimate and “something huge, huge, is coming up.”
As enigmatic as Bjork can seem on the outside, to listen to her music is to hear an artist truly lay herself bare. The outer measures of Bjork can be wildly contrasting, like her fashion statements and coy demeanor. Her external eccentricities, like wearing kabuki face-paint and wild hairstyles at live shows, can keep casual listeners at bay. But the lyricism of her music is often extremely real and more personal, wearing its heart on its sleeve. She showed this on her “Selmasongs” (2000) soundtrack for Lars Von Trier’s film “Dancer In the Dark”, about a young immigrant girl who is stricken by poverty and a degenerative disease. Also, one dark tragedy, led Bjork to new musical ground. On September 12, 1996, an obsessed fan mailed a letter bomb to Björk’s London home and then killed himself. The package was intercepted by police. After that incident Bjork delved deep into her record “Homogenic” (1997), and also produced “So Broken”, a flamenco-styled song roughly about that turbulent time, made available only on a special Spanish print of the album. She told Raygun magazine she was having “a piss” about it all in the song, but that’s not what it sounded like. “So Broken” is a gut-wrenching, passionate wail of a song, that revealed more about her mindset than the incident itself: “My heart was so broken / It was in pieces / My heart was so broken … / All continuity has just vanished away / One step at a time, baby / My heart is so broken / I’m so completely unhealable.” It’s one of the most heartbreaking songs she’s ever written, with guitarist Raimundo Amador adding a flamenco accent to doomed verses about an irreparably damaged state of mind. Bjork retreated into one of the oldest lamenting styles of music in the world and came out with a masterpiece.
“Biophilia” is still personal, but in a much different, more subdued way than a song like “So Broken”. Bjork takes technology, computers and old baroque instrumentation connected in an almost Rube Goldberg type of setup and sees where it will lead her. She commissioned a gameleste to be built, incorporating gamelan-like bronze bars in a celeste housing. The final product was the work of British percussionist Matt Nolan and Icelandic organ craftsman Björgvin Tómasson. Technology and now by extension, this customized instrument, have become just one more way for Bjork to freely express, and take her moods, feelings and thoughts into purely intuitive directions. Computers have expanded her palette. And it makes sense she’d feel inclined toward them, because Bjork has never played traditional instruments like guitar or piano. Her musical world, like many modern artists, consists largely of voice, electronics, improvisation and backing musicians. She builds songs like architects construct buildings.
Fans will find Bjork in a familiar place (at water’s edge) in her new song, “Thunderbolt”, as the track opens with deep church-organ notes punctuating verses about “craving miracles”. The song leads into a brief silences, melodies build, unfold and blend into computerized percussion and spreading vocal harmonies. It’s an arrangement that feels more like a blossoming than a stacking of blocks. It has that unique feel of being both organic and highly synthetic. Maybe a song like “Crystalline” represents the process of her creations more clearly, the sounds gathering like molecules, clustering into geo-formations, sonic branches, and little micro-nebulas consisting of wild drumbeats, tinging bells, and oaken-bass thumps. As the title suggests, “Biophilia” is concerned with processes through a big and small lens. That may mean finding beauty or meaning in the motion of stars, the earth’s rotation, the miracles of flesh and biology or the way gunpowder leads into war. In “Virus”, Bjork links love and its slow-motion merging, to its magnificent and dangerous equivalents in nature: “Like a virus needs a body / As soft tissue feeds on blood / Someday I’ll find you, the urge is here / Like a mushroom on a tree trunk / As the protein transmutates / I knock on your skin / And I am in / The perfect match / You and me / I adapt, contagious / You open up, saying welcome.” Only a musician like Bjork would describe love like a virus or fungus, and have it sound so graceful and exquisite.