Album review: Bjork, ‘Biophilia’ (One Little Indian/Polydor)

October 18, 2011

Bjork, a hairy mess. Photo: Nonesuch.

Much has been made of all of the ancillary elements of Bjork’s eagerly awaited eighth album—her first in four years, since the unfocused mess of Volta in 2007—with a lot of blather about its “ambitious, interdisciplinary, multi-platform” nature. If you aren’t aware, Biophilia is artwork, a Michel Gondry video, a set of iPad and iPhone apps, a live show/“music workshop,” and a 90-minute film, among other things.

Oh, yeah: There also are 10 new songs, though that’s easy to forget. And therein lies the problem.

The legions of Bjork superfans eagerly have followed Iceland’s favorite daughter on every detour over the last decade, from the infamous swan dress to the interesting idea/miserable execution of the manipulated vocal effort Medúlla (2004).

Me? I used to love her music way too much, from the Sugarcubes through that startling trio of discs that opened her modern solo career (Debut in 1993, Post in 1995, and Homogenic in 1997), to settle for much of what she’s given us since: novelty concept; self-conscious and pretentious artiness; a lot of joyless, soulless electronica that makes the progressive rock of an earlier generation—say, Genesis, Yes, or Renaissance—sound like the freaking Monkees in comparison; and sheer inscrutability as opposed to slightly obtuse eccentricity.

“As fast as your fingernail grows/The Atlantic Ridge drifts/To counteract distance,” she trills in “Mutual Core,” an attempt to rework the geography-as-metaphor-for-human interaction motif of Wire’s “Map Ref. 41˚N 93˚W” that succeeds only in giving the listener a headache.

That is to say, Bjork not only doesn’t rock anymore (and who the heck could when the tinny digital rhythms of “Solstice,” “Hollow,” “Moon,” and “Mutual Core” percolate in, respectively, 7/4, 6/4, 17/8, and 5/4 times)—she isn’t even in the same hemisphere as fun these days. And no, this lapsed fan does not buy the notion that “she could sing the Reykjavik phone book and it would be a joy to hear.”

Actually, to have her singing the Reykjavik phone book would be more enjoyable than Biophilia.

Where once that distinctive and very human voice was employed to deliver truly memorable, genuinely inventive art-pop songs such as “Human Behaviour,” “Big Time Sensuality,” “Army of Me,” “Bachelorette,” and “It’s Oh So Quiet,” it now has been reduced to merely serving as one more robotic element in a static, tuneless “soundscape”/art project.

Bjork’s disdain for bothering to write actual songs here makes for the most irredeemable failure of her catalog, and one that has much less to do with its mode of creation—Damon Albarn managed to make an intimate yet still very tuneful album on his iPad with the final Gorillaz effort The Fall—than it does with either laziness or, even worse, the misguided, ultra-egotistical fallacy that her every keystroke and vocal hiccup is somehow genius.

On the four-star scale: ½ STAR.