Björk's new album Biophilia, the seventh full-length of her post-Sugarcubes solo career, has, so far, been primarily discussed in terms of the ambitious plan to accompany each song with an interactive iPad app. Tablet- or smartphone-wielding fans will be able to dive into the guts of these tracks, remix their component parts, play whimsical little games within them. Forward-thinking, tech-savvy, a little bizarre—continually apt descriptors for Brand Björk. But novel tech trappings are only charming in support of a strong product. So, it's something of a relief that Biophilia is the Icelandic icon's best work in over a decade. Its spacious, minimal sound is actually a striking continuation of the ten-years-gone Vespertine. That record was a hushed and shockingly intimate rumination on love and sex. This one meditates on mysterious cosmic forces using personal, emotional terms. Throughout her career, both lyrically and visually (there's been no artist more committed to the culturally waning medium of music video than Björk), she's displayed her inner life with stark Scandinavian vistas. She's always standing on cliffs and mountains, visualizing volatile emotional states as shifting tectonic plates and volcanic bursts. Biophilia's effect is familiar, but its process is inverted. Lyrical preoccupations with natural science, quantum physics, and celestial bodies came through dedicated research, knowledge gained and then imbued with a deep and startling emotional resonance. This record has such immense empathy that it literally feels for the cosmos.
Björk's albums since Vespertine have emerged from continual self-challenge. As she puts it, "I enjoy to take on my own musical taboos." An aversion to a cappella informed the bizarre, voice-only Medúlla. Her discomfort with strident feminism played into Volta's bombastic aggression. Biophilia is her take on "generative music," a Brian Eno-coined term for continually mutating music born from pre-set systems, something she's previously considered "superficial." Many of the album's songs were created by plugging the data from naturally occurring algorithms into music-making software and futzing with the result. She augmented those with a crazy number of custom-made physical instruments: a digitally controlled pipe organ, a Tesla-coil bass, a "gamelesta," barely comprehensible systems of 30-foot-tall pendulums. Like the whole app business, these quirks threaten to overshadow the art, but really can't. The decision to foreground Björk's voice—clear, sober, untreated—above these alien sounds is the record's defining trait. Its gentle openness differs from Vespertine's in that the songs aren't afraid to take a sudden turn towards intense rhythmic chaos. "Crystalline," her best single in forever, is capped by a good old-fashioned drum-and-bass freak out! "Mutual Core" features sustained, deliberate phrasing over huge, rushing beats. "This eruption undoes stagnation," she sings. "You didn't know I had it in me." Well, we knew, and the lengths to which she's gone to avoid repeating herself have been appreciated, despite her last few misfires. This time, so much of this beautiful material connects, broadcasting her distinctive voice in surprising new ways. "My romantic gene is dominant," she reveals elsewhere, phrasing that well-established fact as a new scientific breakthrough. It all sounds like magic.