In each city where Björk takes up residence on this tour, groups of schoolchildren will get demonstrations of the instruments and lessons on the iPad apps, whose principles are based on Björk’s original tools. (The one for “Solstice,” the song with the pendulums, lets you compose harp parts by pulling strings from a central sun and flicking planets into orbit to pluck them.) “It turned out generous, like: How can I empower children? But the other side of the coin was that it was selfish: How can I be a self-sufficient troubadour?”
The result is that each song winds up literally taking apart something about how music works—song structure, time signatures, scales, chords, arpeggios—and then reassembling it, Björkwise. It’s no wonder the album itself felt thin or disappointing to some critics. Heard on its own, it can feel bare bones, perhaps undercooked, and certainly a long way from the lavishly expressive sounds on Björk’s first few albums. Some songs sound educational, as if they contain just enough parts to demonstrate a principle. Others are oddly open-ended, as if they were left flexible so you could warp and shape them in the applications. Some of the music sounds almost academically complex. But then there are tracks, such as “Virus,” that are tender and meditative and way too full of feeling to accuse of having gotten lost in the concept.
It’s a lot more immediate onstage, backed by mad-scientist Tesla coils and monumental pendulums, by an array of iPad controllers, by downtown legend Zeena Parkins on harp, and by an Icelandic choir that occasionally starts bouncing and shouting ecstatically, resulting in sprays of blonde hair that resemble a really avant-garde conditioner commercial. At the first of Björk’s shows at the New York Hall of Science, in Queens—where interactive exhibits help cultivate that museum state of mind that inclines a person to get stonerishly fascinated by the intricacies of orbital motion or tectonic plates—the audience was studious, rapt, and, remarkably, almost religiously silent. The biggest cheers were for spare, meditative numbers, intimate showcases for Björk’s voice. Troubadour songs. Midway through, something occurred to me: Björk’s voice is so singular, and by now so familiar, that it wears off, to the point where we can put on her latest record and be slightly deaf to how remarkable it is. Hear it live in a small room, and you’re reminded. Maybe not to whatever eye-opening, pulse-spiking extent attended your first exposure to “Birthday” or “Human Behaviour” or “Hyperballad” or whatever else first turned your head—but you’re definitely reminded.
“Birthday”—that was the single that introduced Björk, one of a set of anarchic Icelandic New Wavers called the Sugarcubes, to an international audience. Her voice, back then, did not exactly lead fans to imagine a left-brained administrator type. The song’s chorus that was just a series of potent vocal sounds, growls and wails, and ecstatic coos wobbling in and out of one another. Up until she developed a vocal-cord nodule a few years ago, Björk made a point of not investigating how that instrument worked. “With arrangements and lyrics,” she says, squinting over her coffee, “I work more with the left side of my brain. But my voice has always been very right brain. I didn’t try to analyze it at all. I didn’t even know until I started all this voice work, two years ago, what my range was. I didn’t want to let the academic side into that—I worried the mystery would go.”
Still, since the success of her first two solo albums—colorful collections, made with British dance producers, that seemed to approach pop music as one big inflatable bouncy castle—she’s chased ever more rigorous ideas and more ambitious formal constraints. One record combined electronic production and orchestral arrangements (1997’s Homogenic). One was embroidered from tiny sampled sounds (2001’s Vespertine); another, built almost entirely from the human voice (2004’s Medúlla). She dropped the funhouse sonics and peppy house beats and took to using instruments with spare, ascetic sounds—plucked harps, droning organs, crackling electronics. Over the past decade, some critics have complained that her music has grown increasingly austere, intellectually abstracted, maybe even cold or distant.
But along the way, Björk wound up in a place rare and special and worth making sure someone gets to occupy: She’s a musician free to dive headlong into experiments and abstractions while still carrying the reach of a pop artist. Sort of a designated explorer, if you will. She gets to be curious on a grand scale—something she is remarkably good at—and if making an album about sailing around the world on a boat (2007’s Volta), or designing musical pendulum robots, or geeking out about DNA replication comes at the expense of a few funhouse hooks, this still strikes me as a net gain.