Throw it out the car window
THE ALBUM CLUB: What should have been a showcase for Björk’s talent is a tormented, self-indulgent meandering mess. Or so reckon Matt Cooper, Darryl Jones and Jim Carroll who got together for a proper teeth-gnashing after listening to Biophilia. DARAGH DOWNEScomperes The Ticket Album Club
MATT COOPER loves listening to old albums. He loves checking out new albums. He loves playing albums from start to finish. He loves ignoring the shuffle function on his iPod. He loves walking albums to work. He loves jogging to albums. He loves sticking albums on at night while reading at home.
He is, in short, an old-fashioned album guy. In the best sense of the word.
So when he was approached a few weeks ago and invited to join The TicketAlbum Club as a November guest, his response was immediate and enthusiastic: “yes, definitely, count me in”.
Big mistake. A teeth-gnashingly awful one, in fact. The experience of having to live with Björk’s Biophiliaover a sustained period of time has been nothing short of purgatorial.
The very first time Cooper pressed play on album opener Moon, his brain instantly started translating its fey harp sounds into the shrill din of alarm bells going off. “I thought, ‘Oh Christ, I’m after downloading a Joanna Newsom CD by accident.’ You know the old saying about a bodhrán, that it’s best played with a knife? Well, I think actually a harp is best played with a scissors. And when I heard that harp at the start I thought, ‘Oh god, is it all going to be like this?’”
Actually, the harp proved the least of Cooper’s torments. “I don’t know if any of you have kids and you suffer having to go to school concerts. And you have these various instruments that the kids are learning to play. So they make a bit of noise on them. And then some other kid comes in on another instrument. And that’s what this struck me as. It was like, ‘Look, we can play all these instruments and do all these bits of noise with them’.” What should have been a showcase for Björk’s “absolutely fantastic voice” has ended up being a self-indulgent mess. And a depressing one to boot. So depressing indeed that listening to it has prompted in the author of How Ireland Really Went Busta whole new bout of patriotic anxiety.
“Jesus, if this is what the Icelandic financial crisis is doing to Icelandic music, what the hell is going to happen to ours? I really fear for U2’s next album.”
Entrenched in her comfort zone
Even before hearing the album, Jim Carroll had picked up that something was not quite right. Everyone seemed to be focusing on the allegedly stupendous fact that each track was to be accompanied with its very own app. And then there was all this blather about Biophiliabeing “a concept album about the Icelandic financial crisis at a time of geothermal tectonic shifts”. Or something like that. Carroll’s spidey sense was all a-tingle. Why, he wondered, was no one talking about the bloody music? Hopes weren’t all that high, accordingly, when he first road-tested the CD.
“I was listening to it in the car. Normally I’d listen to the radio in the car. The first time I listened to it I obviously wasn’t paying that much attention. It was, like, ‘Yeah, not bad’. Then over the weekend I was driving a lot and listening to it a lot, and I hated it. Absolutely hated it. The more time I gave it the more it infuriated me, to be honest. I would quite happily have opened the car window in Tipperary yesterday and just flung it out, you know?” With the lonely exception of Dark Matter, the genuinely singular fifth track whose “verbal gymnastics” Carroll describes as “absolutely brilliant”, the entire affair just strikes him as sonically dated and “not experimental enough”.
“I loved Medúlla. I loved Vespertine. I loved Debut.Everything in between was sort of like, meh . . . And it’s just like she’s at that exalted position where everyone looks up to her. And when she produces something like this you kind of go: ‘Jesus, love, you can do a lot better’.”
High up Carroll’s rap sheet is the way the tracks meander endlessly and seem much, much longer than they actually are. And the songwriting is pitifully weak. “The source material just isn’t there. I can’t imagine anyone doing a version of one of these. How could you? When you’re trying to be experimental, you still need some essence to be experimental with. And that’s what’s missing here.”
Biophilia, he concludes, is the sound of an ageing artist who, for all her past glories, has become hopelessly entrenched in her comfort zone. “Maybe, like Radiohead, she’s got the fear?”
Give me Stevie Wonder
It’s not every day you get a real live Eng Lit prof to review a pop album. So we decided we’d exploit the occasion to the full by asking Darryl Jones to spend some quality time with the Biophilialyric sheet before checking out the CD. How, we wondered, did it all stand up as poetry?
“Looked at cold, even the very, very best song lyrics don’t quite do it on paper. Because that’s not what they’re meant to do, that’s not what they’re meant to be, you know? They have to leave room for the music and for the voice. So it didn’t bother me that this sounded kind of stilted and pretentious and wanky on paper. I thought, well maybe she can get away with that. I mean, she’s got an extraordinary voice, so maybe she can get away with it, maybe she can bring some meaning to it. But I wasn’t sure. There’s one song on here, Crystalline. It’s a song about geology. I’ve never listened to a pop song about geology, as far as I’m aware. I’ve listened to pop songs about getting your rocks off, but I’ve never listened to a song about rocks.”
And what of the rest of the “poems”? How did they read? “Like Carl Sagan put to verse.” When Jones finally put the album on, he found himself pretty bemused. “I was thinking, ‘Bloody hell, it’s a prog rock concept album! This is Tales from Topographic Oceans – from Iceland!And I thought, maybe I’m listening to it in the wrong way? Maybe if I go for a walk in the park it will start to make sense. And in some way it kind of did. I could sort of see this as bits of the soundtrack to some bleak wintry European arthouse Scandinavian movie of some kind. I think that it would be alright in that context. But to listen to 50 minutes of it, it’s almost unbearable.”
Jones went out of his way to give the album every chance before dismissing it. “I was trying to rationalise this, because it really was horrible. So I thought: ‘Is it horrible for a reason? Okay, there are a number of famously impossible albums out there like Metal Machine Musicand Trout Mask Replicaand Trans. Is this one of those come-and-have-a-go-if- you-think-you’re-hard-enough records?’ But no. It’s not, is it?”
In the end he gave up and put on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Lifeinstead. “Because that’s an album that has a cosmic agenda – but great songs as well. You can have both, you know.”
The Album: Biophiliaby Björk
MEET THE CLUBBERS
Matt Cooperis a columnist and author. He presents The Last Wordon Today FM.
Jim Carrollis an Irish Timesmusic journalist and blogger. He hosts The Far Sideon Tuesday nights on Phantom 105.2.
Darryl Jonesis head of the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. His edition of M R James’ Collected Ghost Storieshas just been published.