it’s the sparkle you become;

It’s a week of ‘firsts’ here at Last Year’s Girl, as I don’t think I’ve ever featured a guest post before. Björk’s Biophilia is a groundbreaking combination of music and technology and, as such, is the perfect release for this blog – the problem being I’ve never had much of an interest in the artist’s music. And so I called in a specialist to help.

Steve Nicoll had much to do with shaping my early interest music until I started listening to alternative-country pish he couldn’t stand. He is a social work student, music and football fan who curates the music podcast Slide Into My Hand (check out the recent REM special, featuring a contribution from myself) and contributes to irreverent take on football at all levels of the game, Through on Goal.

I only feel like I can review a fifth of this release as I only have access to the music. I’m not able to play with the iPad apps, and I didn’t see any of the accompanying shows in Manchester earlier this year. There are also plans around further experimental live events, musical education for children, and art installations.

After watching the David Attenborough-narrated trailer I am intrigued by the apps, and I’m glad that it is somebody like Björk who is trying this new, experimental format – she has been doing so throughout her career. After the pop of the Sugarcubes, she released the more experimental Debut as a solo artist and has evolved ever since; trying new techniques and styles on each album culminating in the political Volta in 2007. She has now employed various programmers to accompany each of the ten songs on her new album with different games, allowing you to manipulate the song to how you want it to sound. She even had new instruments built to create sounds through a midi system and touch screens, blurring the lines even further between DJ, musician and programmer.

But with all this experimentation can you still enjoy the music as a standalone album, or has too much gone into the interactive side of the project?

The simple answer is of course you can. Björk has produced an album which is extremely sparse, but at the same time full of invention and emotion. On the first few listens you will probably be wanting to pick out where the newly-invented instruments – the Gameleste, Gravity Harps and Sharpsichord – are. Hopefully this need will subside and you will just let the music wash over you. Actually the most important instrument on this album is the voice; whether the choirs used on “Thunderbolt” or “Cosmology”, or her own. Björk’s voice has always divided people as it has never been conventional, and here it stands out even more and is very much at the front of every track. Even if you don’t want to decipher every lyric – which in the case of “Dark Matter” is impossible – her voice carries every song and adds emotion which could easily have been lost in all the technology.

Thematically the album addresses nothing new as it talks about starting anew and encouraging everyone to try new things and take risks (“Moon” and “Crystalline”) before talking about love and how difficult it is to find and keep (nearly every other track on the album). But it never sounds hackneyed or overbearing, maybe helped by the artist’s limited English and brilliant use of imagery. I especially love this verse from “Crystalline”:

it’s the sparkle you become
when you conquer anxiety
sparkle you become
conquer anxiety
sparkle you become
when you conquer anxiety
it’s the sparkle you become
when you conquer anxiety

The only song that didn’t work for me was “Hollow”. It started off well with a classical musical style build up on what sounds like string instruments, and touches on some really interesting themes of history, culture and wanting to be part of something bigger, but an electronic section just jumps in and takes you away from the mood. But that is nitpicking as the rest of the album easily holds up to anything in Björk’s back catalogue so far.

So whether you are able to download all the apps for your iPad and manipulate every track, have £500 to buy the limited-edition version or just have the album on your mp3 player, the music is still the most important thing and as usual, Björk delivers.

BUY: Biophilia [Amazon] BUY: Biophilia for iPad/iPhone [iTunes]

Last Year’s Weekend in Stuff:
Reading: Flavia Dzodan on the multinational anti-immigration industry
Listening: Flat Top and Pin Drop, a vinyl bootleg of Bruce Springsteen at the Roxy in 1975. My friends are amazing.
Watching: Attack the Block: South London kids defend their housing estate from alien invaders. Sympathetic and hilarious.
I was supposed to be seeing the Pierces this weekend, but I’ve been too ill to leave the house. You’ve all got this in your diaries though, right?


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  1. Pingback: Slide Into My Hand » Episode 18