The current crop of “women in rock”—a trend roughly two decades old, but never mind—yap constantly about dismantling musical and sexual boundaries. But only Björk puts her money where her Icelandic mouth is. As a member of the Sugarcubes in the ‘80s, she helped pull alt-rock out of its guitar-jangle rut and into quirkier, more rhythmic areas, and since the band’s breakup in 1992, her artistic curiosity has only grown. Leading soundscape DJ-producers like Tricky, Howie B, and Talvin Singh first came to mass attention in the credits of her solo albums. And this year’s Telegram single-handedly revived the idea of the remix album as credible undertaking. As mannered as her big, chirpy voice can be, her sonic adventurousness generally saves the day.
Homogenic may be Björk’s most audacious move in a career filled with them. A series of meditations on love and both her and her paramours’ deficiencies, it aims for nothing less than creating a new hybrid. On roughly half the album, she and coproducer Mark Bell (of the British electronica band LFO) take two seemingly incompatible genres—techno and classical—and weld them together. It’s like sneaking a boom box into a chamber recital and seeing what happens.
The collision of the two forms isn’t entirely new to Björk, who attempted a similar fusion on “Isobel,” from 1995’s Post. Whereas “Isobel” felt tentative, the three centerpiece technorchestral tracks on Homogenic are raw, emotional, and exciting. The rushing, panoramic violins in “Bachelorette” match the tempest raging in Björk’s lyrics, in which she compares herself to “a fountain of blood/in the shape of a girl” and “a path of cinders/burning under your feet.” “Joga” is more somber, the strings swelling luxuriantly around Björk as she sings of a “state of emergency/how beautiful to be !” “5 Years” uses the string quartet as a dramatic coda—a musical exclamation point—for her bitter diatribe against a mate who took her for granted.
In each of those tracks, the crunchy shuffle beats—which sound like someone clomping around in icy, foot-deep snow (“Bachelorette”) or a DJ scratching with the world’s most worn-down stylus and vinyl (“5 Years”)—don’t just work in synch with the violins. They also ground the arrangements, preventing them from growing too hokey and melodramatic. The strings, meanwhile, add warmth to both Björk’s occasionally stilted readings (she can still sound as if she’s just learning English) and the fuzzy, staccato rhythms. If Wuthering Heights is ever turned into a cyberpunk musical, its producers needn’t worry : The score’s already been written.
The classical-electronica numbers are only the most obvious of the album’s twists. Homogenic features a few of Björk’s favorite things—like glistening harpsichord effects and hissy, sandpapery drum-and-bass beats—but mutates and subverts them. Except for the sardonic pop of “Alarm Call,” the rhythms are more subdued and darker than on her last two albums. Celestial melodies like the self-chastising “Immature” and the pining “Unravel” are moody and contemplative. In “Pluto” and “All Neon Like,” she sings along with the amelodic ambient and drum-and-bass rhythms, trying to do with techno what vocalese singers did with bebop nearly 50 years ago. Homogenic doesn’t have the club-friendly beats and huge stylistic leaps of Post, but neither does it have anything as irritating as “It’s Oh So Quiet,” that album’s cutesy foray into big-band brassiness. The weakest track here is the last, the Howie B-helmed “All Is Full of Love,” a moony lullaby that sounds like Enya on Ecstasy.
The boldest move on Homogenic isn’t really genre crossing—it’s an attempt at alt-rock maturity. Björk isn’t as old as college-radio pioneers like R.E.M. and U2, who are all either approaching or have passed 40. But she’s a seasoned pro nonetheless. With its grown-up tone and orchestrations, Homogenic could have been stuffy and dull—Sting with a sex-change operation. It’s a testament to Björk’s continued weirdness that even overtures toward adulthood come out delightfully skewed. On one of the album’s most straightforward love hymns, the blippy “All Neon Like,” she stretches her mouth wide open and croons, “I’ll cut a slit open and the luminous beam feeds you, honey !” Imagine her performing that song at a typical Lilith Fair show. A line like that would have scared the incense out of everyone, and good for her.