Björk’s eighth solo full-length album Biophilia hit the Internet Thursday, almost three weeks before its official U.S. release date. Every album leaks before before they’re released (except Watch the Throne). But the Biophilia leak is exceptional, because despite the full album (or a version of it) being out there for free, what’s out there isn’t even the half of it.
Biophilia is a multi-media project that will be accompanied by three years’ worth of multi-week residencies in various cities. More excitingly, it’s also accompanied by an iPad app that gives you extras for each song: games, essays, lyrics, an animated map of the sound elements that scrolls as the song plays, etc. Scott Snibbe, who developed the Biophilia apps told the the Guardian: “Björk’s put herself way at the forefront here by saying, ‘We’ll release this album and these apps at the same time and they’re all part of the same story.’ The app is an expression of the music, the story and the idea.”
If you’ve played around with the four apps that are out now, you can see just how important they are to this project, which, in varying degrees of abstraction, attempts to bridge biology and musicality in word and sound. They breathe life into a series of veins that Björk has arranged sonically. And it’s a good thing, because listening to veins can be a drag. Musically, from a pop fanatic’s perspective, Biophilia is Björk’s least rewarding full-length by far — it’s at least as difficult as her all-vocal album, Medúlla, but without the charming melodies that often played like roller coaster tracks — dynamic and thrilling, but engineered with a logical precision. To the virgin ear, much of Biophilia doesn’t make much sense. Björk conjures odd time signatures that sometimes expire with their verses. There’s a groggy melodicism too: it frequently sounds like Björk just rolled out of bed, sang whatever, and went with that. And what’s more infuriating/intimidating is that whatever melody Björk uses will probably have little to do with the melody before.
Björk is still a visionary, and so because this is not a pop record (to the extent that it makes 2007′s Volta sound like bubblegum) we can assume that Björk did not want it to be a pop record. But she’s no slouch, and the apps thus far make up for the lack of hooks. In fact, they are the hooks — the tangible entries into the abstract. Bonding with “Crystalline” by turning your iPad through a series of virtual tunnels in a deceptively simplistic crystal-building game, or just watching the parts of “Moon” slip in and slide via a scrolling animation make these songs relatable in a way that even the poppiest of pop rarely is. (I’ll give her “Virus,” though, which compares new love to a virus invading and destroying a cell — that one’s gorgeous with or without the app that asks you to fight a virus attack. If you win, the song ends. That’s no reward.) Maybe the apps merely make up for lazy songwriting, but again, there’s no lack of inspiration here. Biophilia is an immersive experience that demands you get your entire body wet.
So the leaked version of Biophilia is like a folder of verses without their choruses. She has constructed these songs to exist over multiple dimensions. It’s a shame that the parts of this album that have leaked could repel people from the full experience, should they be turned off by the surface intangibility. That would be a case of technology trumping technology. See, apps don’t leak before their release date with nearly as much frequency as music, and so it would seem on paper (or on iPad screen) that Biophilia was unleakable. In a way it was … until the sonic leak, exposing people to its most difficult facet. That a leak could change as many minds out of Biophilia‘s favor as the apps could change mind in its favor show just what a special case this is. This leak is part of its story, part of what makes it fascinating.
Complicating matters is the fact that the leak is a misrepresentation of Björk’s finished product. Last week she announced that she was pushing back the album to retool it, and swapping out a studio recording for a live version recorded earlier this year. Who knows what Björk’s revision means for the album — perhaps she’s fine-tuning Biophilia to be more digestible in its sonic form. We’ll see in the coming weeks, and then we’ll literally see when the apps all come out. We still have so much to look forward to with Biophilia. How many leaked albums can you say that about?
Rich Juzwiak is a writer and video editor whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Jezebel, and on This American Life. He runs the pop culture blog fourfour.