Man versus the machine is one of the most persistent themes of 20th-century art. From the 1932 novel Brave New World to last year’s Unabomber manifesto, popular culture abounds with dire warnings about the dehumanizing potential of technology. Though electronic music embraces both the tools and the futuristic veneer of the cyber-age, it, too, is often technophobic. The British duo Orbital, for instance, uses digital instruments to comment on the threats that a post-industrial society poses to the environment.
But the Icelandic dance diva Björk Guðmundsdóttir—popularly known as Björk—treats machines like woman’s best friend. A beautiful, minimalist affair, Homogenic, her third solo release, strikes a balance between the artificial and the organic. With an unlikely cast of collaborators—the Icelandic String Octet, the 1970’s disco maestro Eumir Deodato and Mark Bell of the early techno act LFO—Björk overlays spare rhythm tracks with classical acoustic strings and intergalactic sound effects. She seems to be saying that what matters is not where the sounds come from but how well they convey human emotion.
On Unravel, a parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow song, synthesizers sigh with longing and plodding drums beat like a bruised heart. Add Björk’s evocative wild-child vocals to the mix, and the effect is as strange as it is cinematic.
A cross between a forest princess and a sci-fi spacegirl, the image she projects is also a hybrid of nature and technology. And through wildly experimental albums like Post (1995), she has established herself as one of pop’s most daring artists. “State of emergency/is where I like to be,” she proclaims on the ballad “Joga.” Drawn to the extremes of emotion and experience, Björk makes the mundane seem extraordinary and surreal. On “All Neon Like,” a gorgeous ambient-jungle track, she compares the creative process to a spider weaving a web made of glow-in-the-dark neon thread.
Such songs imagine a world in which Mother Nature rules supreme but technology enhances its beauty. Björk’s idealism can be a bit cloying at times—does she really think, as she sings on “Alarm Call,” that she can sit on a mountaintop and with a “joyous tune free the human race from suffering” ? Björk wants to celebrate the joy that’s all too often ground out of people, but presumably there’s a more complicated vision lurking in the circuit boards of her brain. It may as yet be fuzzy, but it is definitely all her own.