The Stinkers of 2011 – Bjork’s Biophilia

First things first, I’ve chosen my words very carefully in the title above and feel like perhaps I should clarify myself. I don’t think it would be fair to label Biophilia as “The Worst Album of The Year” by any stretch of the imagination, but perhaps it is the most disappointing, and that disappointment stinks.

I am a big fan of Bjork’s music – I recall seeing The Sugarcubes perform “Hit” on The Word and rushing out to the shops the next day to buy the CD single. Debut was hugely hyped upon release but has aged very well, Post was much more than just “It’s Oh So Quiet,” thankfully. It was with Homogenic though that Bjork’s music reached stratospheric heights and has pretty much there stayed ever since. I’ll be the first to admit that her music is not for everyone, and indeed it’s her unrelenting quest for sonic experimentation and innovation that continues to give her the edge over other “out there” vocalists & performers.

You can imagine then that the news of a new Bjork album in 2011 was greeted with boundless enthusiasm and excitement. My “bucket list” of performers to see live pretty much has only her left on it (assuming Mad Ragga Jon isn’t staging a comeback any time soon) so that was something to look forward to. Also, whilst 2007’s Volta album was pretty darned good, one couldn’t help but feel that maybe it wasn’t Bjork using her full potential – yeah, there were some cracking tunes, and the remix packages were largely excellent (particularly Modeselektor’s remix of Dull Flame of Desire) but nothing on there truly felt like it had that alchemical blend of the wildly esoteric and anthemic that earlier songs of hers still have to this day.

Irrationally high hopes were raised for some sort of masterpiece from Biophilia – something fittingly kooky, unique, striking and timeless. When the video promo for Crystalline arrived, signs continued to be strong – especially after what happens 3 minutes into the tune:

Ludicrous outfits, hyper-energetic visuals, crap dancing, and a terrifying wall of drums that hinted at the promise of a full album of similarly bombastic and schizophrenic music. Brilliant.

This is the point at which we discuss the app..

Biophilia’s USP was that it was not only a concept album of ten songs, but that collectively we were kicking down technological boundaries: this album was INTERACTIVE! Yes, Biophilia arrived on a tsunami of techno-babbled hype about how it would transcend physical formats (CDs? Sod off Grandad!) and be a piece of touch screen interactive software.. an App, if you will. Looking at the video above, you may agree that it looks like a hugely engaging & entertaining way to explore the music and the “universe” that had been woven around it. However, what did not become apparent until very late in the day was that this app (and as a direct result the full album experience) was exclusively available on iTunes for Mac users. When pressed in interviews about catering to alternative platforms, say Windows or Android, Bjork herself was kind of flippant & dismissive, saying something like “Oh, I hear that apps are quite easy to rip – I’m sure someone out there will rip it for those others.” Well, I guess it’s only 2 and a half months since the release date but in technology terms that’s a lifetime, and as far as my googling powers can tell, there still isn’t an Android format available – either legally or otherwise.

You may have guessed from the previous paragraph – I myself am a Windows and Android user. My reasons for being so are multiform and far too convoluted to go into detail here, but one that bears mentioning is the hegemony of a near-religious fanaticisim of a designer toy, and the subsequent monopoly over creativity & expression. I’m not quite wearing my tin foil hat just yet, but I think there should always be room for consumers to choose a viable alternative in a competitive market place. By choosing to neglect that alternative, Bjork effectively made a political statement (however slight) and demonstrated that she was only interested in catering to Apple fans. To many such as myself, it felt like a bit of a two fingered salute.

Listening to Biophilia itself (on mp3), it’s pleasant enough I suppose, but two main resounding thoughts constantly spring to mind. Firstly, it’s so spacious and languid, eschewing “traditional” song structures in preference of abstracted sonic landscapes and Bjork’s trademark ee.nun.see.haaaaay.shun, well I have to say, it’s a little bit boring. Secondly though, one can’t help but listen to it and imagine all the fun those Apple users are having, watching the visuals, playing with musical nodes as the melodies tinkle away. It would be overly harsh to say that Biophilia is a video game soundtrack, but it is the musical layer of a multi-sensory experience as envisioned by the creative mind behind it. To merely “listen” to Biophilia is just as incomplete an experience as to watch a film with the sound down.

Never mind, I thought to myself, so the album is a lost cause – at least I can get to see Bjork live at last, experience that amazing voice of hers, gasp in awe at the Tesla coil instrumentation, the ostentatious set dressing & livery, and all other bonkers sorts of affectations befitting an entertainer of her stature. But no, the live show never toured the country – Bjork had a short term residency in the Manchester International Festival for about 3 weeks- tickets were like gold dust, most sold out within minutes, and then the usual ridiculous ebay ticket pricing scams ensued. Not entirely Bjork’s fault, admittedly, but I can’t have been the only member of her legion of fans who was crossing their fingers and waiting for the “inevitable” tour dates to be announced, only to be left wanting. A second two fingered salute in the space of one album’s promotion.

So, in summary – Biophilia – not a bad album, not a great one either, but ultimately it felt like a rather private party to which only certain fans were invited. It’s hard for a fan to enthuse about an artist when they don’t seem particularly interested in allowing the audience to enjoy the art they have created.

Exclusivity stinks I’m afraid, and so too does Biophilia. You Apple lot are welcome to it.

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