I’m going to get this out of the way: I’m going to look at Biophilia as an album, and I’m not going to use the word “app” once. It’s pointless to discuss this, whether or not it’s a gimmick. It’s not exactly pertinent to discuss how nifty anything related to the iPad is when talking about a record (unless it happens to be the Gorillaz album The Fall). Are we over this? Okay.
What do we mean when we talk about how reserved an album is? For different musicians, it means different things. Boxer, for instance, is The National’s most reserved album, in that it’s much quieter than any of their other records, and Matt Berninger doesn’t scream anything on it. Seven Swans is the same for Sufjan Stevens, in that it feels like it’s only him in a room for most of it, even though you know it’s not. But what does it mean to say that Biophilia is the most reserved of all of Bjork’s albums?
It goes without saying that Bjork is not a woman of half-measures. She’s been making music that could almost never be described as “reserved” for a startling 35 years, and has evaded compromise for most of it. Even if you go to the most peaceful of her albums, Vespertine, there is a feeling at most moments that the world that she created on the record is threatening of swallowing her alive at any moment. There’s a strange sense of danger built into her works in this regard, such as how (going back to her second record, Post) “Army of Me” made you feel the same sort of oppression that came with the territory of the song’s subject matter. She is unique in that she works outside the world of songwriting that most (okay, all) other songwriters are constrained by, and she has never wavered from this. It’s what makes her albums feel unique: she is always at the behest of the sonic microcosm she has constructed to house her own power as a musician.
On the first few listens, Biophilia feels like the record Bjork was working for when she planned the original concept behind Medulla, where the voice was brought to the forefront, and everything else was allowed to melt away. She took that record to its logical conclusion (in that she removed all else but the voice, and the voice alone), but here we see that she doesn’t necessarily need to do that. She can simply allow it to take over on a record, and see where it goes.
Biophilia is, at once, Bjork’s most ambitious, and somehow least ambitious, work to date. Keep in mind, this does nothing to quash the quality of the record, mind you. Here, the gorgeous world that she builds for herself on record is just big enough to rise to her level and match her ever-present power as a songstress, but never does what it always has and rises above her, nearly overtaking her. Certainly there are a few moments where it feels as though it might (“Crystalline,” for instance, feels like the blinking gamelan is in danger of upstaging her at any time, and for a part of “Mutual Core,” she finally is overcome, if only briefly), but most of the record, you get the sense that, on album eight, she has decided to be the master of her domain.
Bjork is a woman who could be, at times, accused of being over-the-top, mostly because her vocal and lyrical styles are at constant odds with the rest of popular music around her. Biophilia feels, at times, like she has realized that she doesn’t always have to compose like this, and has taken things down a notch. As a result, it makes the record feel unfinished at times, like there’s something in the quiet spaces of the record that you can’t hear, but was always suppose to be there. For someone who started listening to her music with Post, a record built on the mantra of “bigger is better,” Biophilia can ring a little empty at times. But, really, it’s unfair to even bother comparing. She’s a woman who never made record that were meant to be compared to the others, and at times, a woman who never seemed to make music for anyone but herself. She’s always been in her own world, and Biophilia is the world she’s living in now.