Björk is always interesting because she is always interested. Her enthusiasm for new ideas is so palpable that what in other hands might seem unwieldy and pretentious — like, say, an album about life on Earth, accompanied by apps, essays and other conceptual overflow — glows with almost childlike wonder. Ambitious yet understated, Biophilia feels like the record she’s been working toward all her career, with its celebration of contrasting impulses: nature and technology, order and chaos, thought and instinct, immediacy and mystery, beauty and noise. This is Björk’s territory alone. It’s not that nobody else would attempt something like this, it’s that you probably wouldn’t want to hear them if they did.
Despite all the extra information contained in various editions of the album, the songs make perfect sense on their own terms. The marvelous “Cosmogony” ponders the origin of the universe in less than five minutes, each verse relating a different creation myth and each chorus erupting in grateful awe. “Crystalline” traces flickering patterns of gameleste (a custom-made hybrid of gamelan and celeste) before shattering them with an out-of-nowhere frenzy of drum ‘n’ bass. The gorgeous “Virus” is a metastasizing simile for love, expressed in terms of everything from fungi to dynamite. “Mutual Core” underlines its “body-as-planet” image of “tectonic plates in my chest” with sudden, volcanic beats. Biophilia is full of little epiphanies like this. The ideas don’t get in the way of the music; to the contrary, they’re encoded in every note.
On “Thunderbolt” Björk asks, “Have I too often craved miracles?” It’s a sharp question from someone who has spent more than 20 years seeking the transcendent and working out new ways to express it, on the understanding that it might not always come off as hoped. But when she manages to corral so much curiosity and imagination into just 50 minutes and still achieve a sense of subtlety and space, well, that does feel pretty miraculous.