I don't know if Bjork was taken aback by the negative reaction to her last album, 2007's uneven yet underrrated Volta - probably not because she does not strike me as someone who would really care - but with this disc she has chosen to move away from the impulses that had her collaborating with hitmaker Timbaland and gravitated toward a collage of sounds so odd she had to literally invent new instruments to make them possible. One example of this is the album's lead single and strongest overall offering, "Crystalline." Using an instrument dubbed the "gamaleste," because it is a combination of the celesta and the gamelan (two other instruments that I have never heard of, by the way), Bjork crafts a twinkling beat that is instantly addictive. Over this, she layers (and every song on the album benefits from extensive listening) whip-crack percussion and airy, ambient sonics. It is interesting also to note that the song, while avant garde as f*ck, is as effective as it is because it also applies basic pop structure, including a terrific chorus, multiple-part harmonies, and a extremely rocked-out drum-and-bass closer. That's right; I used to hear those all the time on Beach Boys records.
The album also features "Virus," one of the most beautiful compositions to appear on a Bjork album in a long time, and that is, of course, saying something - that is assuming you don't find the very sound of Bjork's voice immediately galling (as my wife does). Bjork, absolutely a member of rock's Mount Rushmore of female vocalists (with Stevie Nicks, Billie Holiday, and Patsy Cline, for my money), sounds incredible on the track, which features one of the full-length's many brilliant choral arrangements. Featuring an intricately layered series of bell-like instruments, it eventually leaves you with the feeling that you just bore witness to the largest, greatest sounding, most rhythmic set of wind chimes you've ever heard in your life. Another track, "Mutual Core," will blow listeners away. Literally, probably, if they should be unlucky enough to get too close to the stage during the live performance seeing that it was made in part with aid from another of Bjork's new favorite instruments, a Tesla coil. Along with strong, forceful vocal work, the song features a series of ear-tickling atmospheric rumbles, an almost funeral-dirgian organ and, once the song moves to its behemoth of a chorus, crushing percussion, a choral arrangement that gives the song a feeling of actual movement, and, yes, an electronic surge that can only be created by co-opting a device that was used by Dr. Frankenstein to help create his signature green monster. I know I am beginning to make about as much sense as one of Bjork's typical lyrics, but, trust me, the song is on fire.
It would not be an honest review if I did mention that there are some songs on this album that are just plain, simple, straight-up-and-down nutso. Like "Dark Matter." Formed by a synthy, pipe-like background, it literally sounds as if it is taking place in space, or at least Stanley Kubrick's version of it. Still, if you like the sound of Bjork's voice (and if you don't, there is no reason you should buy this album or read this review), you'll be drawn into the vocal arrangement, which features Bjork and several doppelgangers, who are given all manner of distortion until the piece seems like one of the strangest sing-alongs you've ever taken part in. The very next track on the album, the dark, playful "Hollow," only continues the intriguing trip down the rabbit hole of wackiness. One minute of ominous synth beats take place before a ghostly, pitch-shifted Bjork vocal is introduced. From there, the marching organ blasts get quicker and quicker until they have formed a tappable (while somewhat terrifying) beat. It's a song that the listener will find to be either thrillingly unpredictable or utterly unlistenable, but, of course, Bjork has never been a stranger to polarization.
I really wish I could toss a negative out about the album so you, the faithful reader, did not think I was totally in the bag for Bjork. But there is nothing bad I can say about this album, which is clearly one of the best to be released this year. Even the album's lesser tracks (I'll give you maybe "Moon" or "Solstice," which, respectively, could have opened and closed the album better) leave the impression that you are listening to an artist who is ceaselessly pushing the boundaries of what music is or should be. Even if you took away all of the heretofore nonexistent instruments (which she did once before with 2004's Medulla), you still have that voice. Sometimes cracked. Sometimes brassy. Sometimes tender. Sometimes unintelligible. Sometimes transcendent. Always astounding.
The truth is Bjork IS an artist who is making music like no one in the industry, however much like a cliche that might sound. She is an incomparable talent, and, with Biophilia, she has created an insanely explorable, uniquely innovative, and wonderfully intriguing masterpiece to add to her already accomplished canon of musical contributions.
Now, anybody have an iPad they can loan me? I need to see these wacky apps.