Released this Monday, Björk’s new album Biophilia is possibly her most ambitious, complex and bemusing to date. Each track is an iPad app, one which opens up into games, National Geographic videos and opportunities to remix songs. One particular game will stop a track from playing if the user ‘wins’; how many artists would invent such curveball wizardry?
A clue, to open: I am somewhat a fan of Björk, having fallen under the spell not long after Cable TV was installed at the family home. Whoever was choosing MTV’s rota back then needs a handshake – “Venus as a Boy” and selected Sugercubes tracks scattered throughout the day. That voice, its unusual phrasing somewhere between Norwegian and Cockney, her presence: yep, this is the favourite singer for me. At a time when my High School friends were pairing off into indie or dance, there I was trying to balance waiting for the next Oasis or Ocean Colour Scene single with putting Debut on repeat.
(And for that matter, I was eagerly grossing out on Eurovision but that’s possibly for another thread…)
The journey from that first solo album to next week’s multimedia extravaganza has been long and exhausting and occasionally too bewildering for words. There was Dancer in the Dark, the bleak Lars von Trier film encompassing musical numbers and suicide, from which came the bewitching duet with Thom Yorke. (From which, additionally, came the half-truth rumour from the recording of the single, that Björk admonished Yorke for trying to take over ‘her’ song).
Lest we forget Drawing Restraint 9, the utterly confusing and often unlistenable soundtrack to the arthouse film of the same name made with her partner Matthew Barney. To say the album needs a running jump is something of an understatement; I find you need the clearance comparable to that of a 747.
From the post-90s club comedown album Debut to the literal Post album, the direction taken from radio turnaround to underground was abrupt and artistically liberating. Listening again to the earliest albums retains satisfaction, the first has a great charm and cuteness about it, with Crying, Human Behaviour, and Play Dead as stand out tracks still today. The inventiveness and quirk breaks through with the follow up Post, which brings the industrial crunch of Enjoy and the twisted romanticism of Isobel.
That album also provided, of course, the one albatross It’s Oh So Quiet, a re-imagining of the 1951 hit by Betty Hutton. Fans are divided on whether the song retains any artistic merit at all; when Björk polled website visitors to decide the tracklisting of the Greatest Hits, the song didn’t feature anywhere near the top 20. Snobbery? Or realising that some choices early in a career don’t always need revisiting? For what it’s worth, I am fairly neutral on the matter – it is not much of a song anyway, and the Björk reinvention has a certain eccentricity I like.
Many singers and groups claim their albums are all different with characters of their own (cf. David Bowie and indeed The White Stripes, who would challenge themselves to record each album in different ways to guarantee different results each time). Björk certainly does give each of her albums characteristically different attitudes and accents – you need only to look at the cover art for that. The young and wide eyed singer on Debut grows into the digital Geisha on Homogenic, who turns into a monochrome swan for Vespertine. Heaven only knows what character lay behind Volta, with its flames and fur and oversized neon boot. At the time of its release, I was amongst many reviewers who noted just how much fun Björk was having if the megapop madness of Volta was any guide. It’s certainly true that it’s the only time you’ll ever hear something approaching the Pussycat Dolls on one of her albums…
We approach the new release this Monday unlike most others, not least because all her tracks are available on YouTube and versions aplenty were showcased at the Manchester International Festival. Fittingly for such a ‘digital’ album in an app-age, remixes and re-worked versions already slosh around the Internet, and the iPad version of Biophilia will allow users to take and make their own interpretations as standard. It’s a concept album like no other, and this is why her output is so vibrant and consistently interesting.
Now aged 46, she shows no signs of wanting to make easy or predictable choices. It is for these reasons why I have always liked her – for the invention, the other-worldliness, and the interpretation of reality that is unlike most other contemporary singers. Yes, the output retains an eye on the commercial, but ultimately the results are personal. From the radio hits in the 90s to breakbeats and laptronica in the 21st century, these results also happen to be almost entirely without fault.
I leave you with some of my personal highlights.