What’s Bjork going on about now? The Icelandic singer transforms herself into the world’s wiggiest science teacher amid the ultra-ambitious, sometimes lovely, more often ponderous or precious “Biophilia” (Nonesuch).
“Biophilia” is designed as a multi-media project, with custom-made apps for each of its 10 songs designed to expand upon its “unique synthesis of music, nature and science,” as Bjork describes it. It presents a series of scientific concepts – gravitational pull, the Moon’s effect on the tides, the interval between a lightning strike and a thunder clap – as music. Hey, it’s the first iPad suite and it’s educational, too (coming to a student seminar near you, the singer promises).
That’s all terrific in its own Bjorkian way and you just have to shake your head in bemused admiration. The Icelandic gadfly has made a career out of being something else, and this project is already being hailed as her grandest adventure yet. But her eighth studio album ultimately will be judged as a musical endeavor, and that’s where things get problematic.
The trouble starts because the concept outruns the songs – there are very few actually. She borrows from the inspirations of Harry Partch and Tom Waits to employ a number of unlikely or custom-made instruments: a "gameleste," a combination of a gamelan and celesta; a group of pendulums keying the sound of a harp; a Tesla coil. But the elastic time signatures and twinkling percussion, spasms of mid-‘90s drum ‘n’ bass electronic rhythm, operatic choirs, Gothic organ and synthesized noise bursts are rarely organized into any sort of coherent or particularly memorable structure. Most of the tracks feature the singer’s voice wandering atop these collages to the point where she often sounds like she’s oblivious to them, tacked on to the music rather than interacting with it.
There are exceptional moments: the way the chiming percussion of “Crystalline” gives way to a furious break beat, the air-out-of-the-balloon descent of “Cosmognony,” the way the tension in “Mutual Core” finally bubbles over in a beehive of electronics. But only “Virus” connects in the way Bjork’s best work can, uniting the fundamental optimism and wonder underlining this project with music that sounds otherworldly yet welcoming. That quality – the playfulness central to a career spent gleefully overturning expectations – is what’s missing on much of “Biophilia.”