Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Island of Dr. Bjork

Bjork’s album Biolphilia is one of the most interesting recordings I’ve heard in a long, long time. I presented it to my Music and the Natural World class at The College of New Jersey today, emphasizing its theme, repeated at every level of structure, of viewing the natural world on its own terms -- a poet’s view through the lens of science.

Like most people, I’ve been casually aware of Bjork and her music since Debut, released in 1993. Her last album, Volta, was one that I bought, largely on the strength of its single, “Earth Intruders.” On that album, she was reaching for a unified artistic vision, connecting the sound world of the various tunes with similar instrumentation, including horns of various types: boat recorded on the water and chorused French horns. The theme of the album is sociological, a musical and poetic study of humans.

But though ambitious, Volta didn’t reach me. Some of the effects, including the boat horns, seemed a little clumsy. Likewise a few of the songs, notably the duet with Antony Hegarty, “Dull Flame of Desire”. It all sounded somewhat cobbled together, directed but uneven.

Biophilia is equally ambitiuous. I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times now and have grown more enamored with each pass. Using inventive choirs, organs, harps and invented instruments, Bjork sustains a consistent musical texture, a clean line from beginning to end. The songs all share a dark, moody quality, with a main improvisatory vocal melody. The rest of the music is structured around that, in highly complex, transparent arrangements that are always surprising. Standard song formulas emerge, but the surface textures float free of the ground, like sacred chant. There are a few awkward musical moments, as in the arbitrary addition of a “drum and bass” style coda in “Crystalline.” But more often the juxtapositions grow organically into a cultivated flow, a single garden, lush and lovely.

Each song takes an element of nature imagery as its starting point, interpreting it poetically with connections that are highly personal and sometimes difficult to follow: “Thunderbolt” somehow inspires her to think of “arpeggios”; “Virus” veers into a verse on gunpowder.

>.View her video of "Moon" on her YouTube channel:

But despite that (or because of it) the poetry is gripping. In “Virus,” she compares the invasive role of a bug or a parasite to an obsessed lover, turning it over and examining it as a scientist, for its beauty, without denying its horror. “Thunderbolt” sets fear and a yearning for enlightenment in opposition as she questions the motivation for “craving miracles.” “Moon” startles as a prayerful ceremony of rebirth, as she celebrates her psyche washed, clean and reawakened.

The words could be completely satisfying and engaging read as poetry. Sung -- with odd offbeat accents that underscore their nonhuman content -- they gain emotional power. But no matter what, they remain anchored in the “biophilia” theme. Bending all to that end, on “Dark Matter,” she abandons words altogether, using her voice and her choir of closely harmonized womens’ voices to sing nonsense syllables, echoing the mystery to physicists of the dark matter presence in our physical world.

The invented instruments – a combination of celeste and gamelan, called a gameleste, on “Virus”; a Tesla coil rigged to sound a bass line on “Thunderbolt” – add to the sense of intimate human exploration of the mysteries of the world. Each offers a new perspective on the well-established laws of the acoustic physical universe.

All this says nothing of the marketing galaxy that accompanies Biophilia. In addition to the customary tour, CD and promotional videos, there are apps associated with the songs for the iPod, iPad and iPhone.

While extending the artistic ambition outlined on Volta, Biophilia is everything Volta is not: a deep artistic achievement, completely satisfying.

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