October 16th, 2011 | WEEKEND

REVIEW: Bjork “Biophilia” app brings it

Bjork_and_the_Swan_Dress
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Yearning to hear Björk sing about the harmony of our “yoo-nee-verss,” the moon, crystals, anxiety, thunder, and menstrual cycles? There’s an app for that.

The eclectic Icelandic singer-songwriter has developed an elaborate iPhone application to accompany her latest album, “Biophilia” – and the results are mixed.

“Biophilia” is a concept album with a capital C. The first time you open the app, a cosmic Michael Caine (or something) compares musical expression to the process of scientific discovery and impels you to “live, learn, create.” (Oy.) Each of the ten tracks has some kind of scientific tie-in: there’s a love song between a sick person and a virus, a dirge about dark matter, you get the picture. And every track has been fitted with an animation, a game, or a music-making tool that in some way relates to the scientific phenomenon. (The album has also been released in the normal way, without any apps.)

So there are a couple things at stake here. One: does the science flavor help or hinder the music? Two: do the apps add anything, or are they just gimmicks?

The answer to these questions is all of the above. Around half of the songs are about the cycles of nature (planets, the machinery in a cell, Conan O’Brien’s career) or physical patterns (crystals), and the music reflects that. One of those songs, about the creation of the world, is pretty ravishing. The others are tiresome. As for the songs that don’t have anything to do with patterns – those ones drone on, amorphous; the good parts, mainly when Björk multiplies the vocal track for an expansive choral effect, are few and far between.

When the songs fail, it’s kind of okay, because sometimes there are games to play while you’re bored. But many of the apps don’t become anything more than, well, distractions. A repetitive song about crystals is accompanied by an inscrutable game that has something to do with collecting gems. A song that was made using a Tesla coil is partnered with an app where you draw thunderbolts to make arpeggios. It gets old fast and the connection with science is shamelessly superficial.

The pretentious impression is amplified by the essays that have been written to explicate each track. Some of these essays, which were written by a professor at the University of Sheffield, will be genuinely helpful for those interested in the basic music theory of Björk’s music. But they all seem awkwardly laudatory and indulgent – one of them, for instance, ends with a declaration that the musician’s use of a certain piece of digital processing software “shows that technology can work alongside intuition and impulse.”

But – truth be told – there’s something endearing to the whole package. There are some wince-worthy hints of pretension, but overall Björk is ingenuous. The music isn’t all good, and neither are the apps, but you never feel as though you are a targeted market demographic. The lyrics are sincere and personal, if at times perplexing. Most of the apps aren’t worth their price, but they are cool toys.

And there are some fabulous highlights, which you can get a hold of without buying the whole album. For one thing, any song app you buy will come with scrolling musical scores, one in conventional and one in intuitive notation – a delightful idea. The animation for “Hollow,” a song about genes, is one of the coolest things I have ever seen in my entire life – a million dancing proteins frantically munching on strands of DNA. The song “Dark Matter” has some blood-curdling moments, and comes with an app that lets you play an array of scales from around the world. And “Virus” is just great – both the song and the app. You get to watch a virus infect a cell to the soundtrack of an ironic indie love ballad. Tinkling bells come to represent the percolation of a disease through a body.

A “Biophilia” app, with no songs or apps, is available in the iTunes app store for free. You can then buy each song/app combination individually from within that “umbrella” app, for $1.99 each, or you can buy all the songs/apps at once for $9.99. The non-app version of the album is available in the iTunes music store for $12.99.