Björk’s in a weird place. The old media order that kept her visible on the fringe of the monoculture is gone. She has a more central place in the new ecosystem, but it’s eroded the otherness that made her seem bigger than music and that drew fans to her. She’s working hard. Her handpicked collaborators show her staying doggedly on top of trends while the songs broadcast the particulars of a rich inner life. So why is it so hard to focus on her these days?
From a marketing perspective, she’s doing all the right things. Biophilia‘s songs are integrated into an iOS app that, based on screenshots and its description, looks very nice. (Downloading the app is free, but Dusted wasn’t provided with in-app songs, which go for $1.99 a pop.) It’s an innovative idea, but has no bearing on the music — with the exception of “Cosmogony.” The song has its merits, but it feels, from the first listen on, like a foregone conclusion: here’s the song that establishes the app concept, stuffed with and slowed by big ideas.
As brand-savvy as she is, Björk hasn’t been as successful recovering the artistic momentum she lost with the relatively songless Medulla. “Earth Intruders” reinforced that notion to the point that Volta also seemed like a write-off. (It’s aged well.) While I’m not convinced Biophilia overcomes the slump as an album, every song has something going for it. And I haven’t felt as connected to her voice or her persona since Vespertine, which remains my favorite thing she’s done. She recaptures that album’s delicate balance of sex and introversion for the length of “Virus,” and goes back even further into her drum ‘n’ bass past with the breakbeats that shake “Crystalline.” There’s energy and moodiness, and once again it’s on a relatable scale.
But the most appealing aspect of Biophilia is a new one. It is the harp. I won’t dip my toe into the reality distortion field surrounding her gear — we’re doing good just based on the music, don’t want to get distracted. “Moon” and especially “Sacrifice” have wonderful, kora-like looping harp patterns, over which Björk does her trademark overemoting. The instrument and the simple lines it plays sound great, but its more important role is bestowing simplicity on an artist that can get hamstrung by her own ideas. Focusing on two instruments provides a stillness that drowns out conceptual and collaborative noise. At this point, it’s nice when a Björk song is content to be music and nothing else. Little here is new, exactly, but nothing’s easily dismissed, either.