12 October 2011
Björk - Biophilia
Firstly, apologies to anyone who follows my twitter feed, or anyone I’ve spoken to in person for the last five months as I’ve been gushing rather incessantly about Björk, which tends to happen in the build up to a release, but usually not quite to this extent. Secondly, if her newest album, which came out on Monday 10th October, is not yet in your life, make it so, as it will change it.
Biophilia has managed to do what I thought was an impossible task, which is topple PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake off the top of my “best album of 2011” list to a respectable second. Not only that, but for me, this has been the most impossibly tense build-up to an album ever. By the time the album came out, I knew all ten of the tracks quite intimately, from the four formal releases and the show at MIF, and Bestival, and the plethora of live footage on youtube, but as a complete album it still managed to surprise and enthral.
When I first heard Moon at MIF I thought it was a fairly twee and childlike song, that was improved by the visuals, I liked it a lot, but it was definitely one of the few growers, which turns out to be one of the most rewarding and luscious tracks on the album, a great opener, the choral arrangements are stunning and the harmonies (particularly on the last “all birthed and happy” line) immense. The video has had a fairly mixed response on youtube, some saying it was a bad choice of song to make a video for, others saying it’s too obvious or looks cheap. I agree with none of those, for me it kind of embodies the entire concept of the album, integrating the visuals that are used live (the moon) the graphics from the apps, and the striking image of Björk that forms the artwork of the front cover. Also, I really like being able to see Björk up close in her videos, her strongest videos in the past are the ones that are almost intrusively close to her and where she’s exposed and real (see cocoon and hidden place). I think it’s worth saying that Björk is brilliant at picking the perfect opener of an album. Lots of people don’t really put much stock in track orders, but I prefer listening to albums than individual songs, so I think it’s really important, would Homogenic have been as epic if it didn’t start with Hunter? Would Medulla have been as jarring and dense if Pleasure Is All Mine didn’t open it?
Thunderbolt was definitely my favourite song live. See this video from Bestival of what an intensely brilliant live experience it was. To see the tesla coil working in the flesh was surreal (at MIF, not so much at Bestival, where it was quite lost on the stage, I didn’t even realise it was there until I saw a video afterwards) I worried the more extreme instruments in this project would seem gimmicky, but the tesla forms a really hypnotic bass line, that at first I thought was lacking from the studio version, and to an extent I still do, although it really kicks in about halfway through, the initial introduction of it is too understated an affair for my liking, it’s literally electrifying when it kicks in live. For me, the lyrics in Thunderbolt are amongst some of her finest, and single-handedly show those who think of this album as some sort of didactic science lesson that at its core it’s a very human album, particular highlights for me: ‘No one imagines the light shock I need/ and I’ll never know/ from who's hands deeply humbled/ dangerous gifts as such to mine come and ‘My romantic gene is dominant/ and it hungers for union’. The choral arrangements again are off the scale, no one does it like Björk. Tesla bass or otherwise, this is my favourite song from the album, and probably enters my favourite songs of all time list. Really looking forward to receiving the manual edition in the post as it will include this live version, which could potentially be the definitive version so far. I’d love to see this as a single with a video, and perhaps a more bass-heavy remix.
Crystalline was the lead single, with a brilliant Gondry video. I prefer the album version to the single version, the way the drum and bass finale fades in is brilliant, and it works so well. It’s worth mentioning that Omar Souleyman’s remix of this track is also brilliant. Cosmogony was another that instantly captivated on a first listen, I was subconsciously already familiar with the melody, as one of the first teasers for the album was this video, which is Wonderbrass playing an alternative arrangement. Again, staggering lyrics: ‘they say, back then our universe/ was a coal-black egg/ until the god inside/ burst out and from its shattered shell/ he made what became the world we know’, I’m really excited at the possibility of the Wonderbrass arrangement with Björk’s vocals, that could be truly epic. Like Crystalline, the album version is different to the single version (the Serban Ghenea mix) and is probably better too.
Dark Matter and Hollow are likely to be some of the most jarring songs of the year, with Dark Matter being a brooding but ultimately beautiful gibberish piece (the choir and organ version included on some releases is my preferred version) and Hollow is quite unlike anything I’ve heard before, sort of sits alongside Ancestors from Medulla in that it’s quite primal and rootsy in the most barbaric sort of way and requires work in order to fully engage in it, but once you can pick out the melody it becomes a brilliant song, the choir repeating the lines ‘trunk of DNA’ and the ‘jewel-after-jewel-after-jewel’ repetition are real high points. I think Virus is an example of Biophilia at its most beautiful, and also, makes me think that aside from the concept and the extremely unconventional time signatures, that Biophilia is essentially a very simplistic album in terms of song structures, this is also another song that reiterates my thoughts that it’s a very human album as well: ‘The perfect match/ you and me/ I adapt, contagious/ you open up, saying welcome’.
Sacrifice is one of my favourite tracks, it’s really tender and the final refrain of ‘your generosity will show in the volume of her glow’ is stunning, I love when the flickery Vespertine-esque beat kicks in about half way through the song. I’m disappointed that this is the only Biophilia track that doesn’t feature on the live album, as the live version of this song ends with a choral version of said refrain and the harmonies are enchanting, I have a bootleg version courtesy of @VintageVeevers but I’d love there to be a higher quality live version at some point.
The last two tracks strike me as a more successful attempt at how Volta concluded. In this case Mutual Core, which ends with perhaps the most exciting 40 seconds of beats on the album and then the serene and heart-achingly good Solstice. I always felt that Volta should have ended with Declare Independents which assaults your ears with a barrage of chanty protest, I always found My Juvenile a bit of an anti climax, it always stood out like a sore thumb on the album for me. But on Biophilia, the come down from the (albeit brief) insanity of Mutual Core leads perfectly into the hypnotism of Solstice, which ends the album at its most intimate and raw. Really can’t wait for some Mutual Core remixes, it is a phenomenally good song.
Anyway, Blah blah blah, I didn’t imagine this would be such a long review/rant/verbalorgasm. I read an Independent review t’other day which gave the album 2 stars out of 5, and then an NME review (which was very well written considering the usual trendy tripe they come out with) gave it a 9/10. This made me think it was quite a divisive album with varying levels of success for people, but in fact the majority of reviews are favourable, maybe the Independent writer is just a fool. On the shuttle bus to the ferry on the way back to Bestival I had to butt in to someone’s conversation as I heard him say “the Cure were the highlight, Björk was quite boring” with a rather lengthy rant (as you might be able to imagine) about how people who don’t like Björk or can’t appreciate the pure magic of her work are lazy and unwilling to be challenged by music. While perhaps that was a bit extreme and I don’t really believe it, I do think that Björk is the most important and progressive artist today, and she will be lauded as one of the great innovators and geniuses of our time and Biophilia will be one of her many masterpieces to cement this. To sum up: Biophilia is a FUCKING TRIUMPH.