San Francisco Chronicle

Björk Sounds the Depths

It would appear that stardom has taken its toll on the Icelandic pop singer Björk. Until recently regarded as the burbling clown princess of Scandinavian musical exports, on her third album the gifted vocalist delves deeper into the mechanized laments and torch songs that have increasingly defined her solo career. The cumulative effect of these 10 songs is depressing—sometimes exquisitely, intentionally so, sometimes not.

Formerly the delirious vocal acrobat of the short-lived Sugarcubes, Björk the solo artist has established herself as an ambassador for experimental hip-hop, tapping her darker impulses along the way. On “Homogenic,” she allows only occasional glimpses into the sunny, daisy-chasing personality that gave the Sugarcubes’ fractured pop its intermittent glitter.

On “Alarm Call,” one of the few songs on the new record that might be called upbeat, Björk goes searching for her suppressed utopianism. “I want to go on a mountaintop,” she sings forcefully, with a burr in her throat, “with a radio and good batteries/ Play a joyous tune/ And free the human race from suffering.” And in the impressionistic, Japanese tea garden setting of “All Is Full of Love,” she soothes a downhearted listener, most likely herself : “You’ll be given love,” though “maybe not from the sources/ You’ve poured yours into.”

With Björk producing herself for the first time for an entire album, “Homogenic” is much more clear in purpose, and murky in execution, than its slicker, stylistically schizophrenic predecessor, “Post.”

The singer seems determined to capitalize on her developing role as pop’s most idiosyncratic interpreter of jazzy melody—represented on “Post” by “It’s Oh So Quiet,” currently the title-card track for the film “She’s So Lovely.” In that vein, the new album’s best song is “Bachelorette,” a doom-laden heartbreaker with an ominous film-noir quality intensified by the Icelandic String Octet, the album’s secret weapon.

A year ago, Björk released “Telegram,” a collection of radical remixes of “Post” tracks. On “Homogenic,” she’s taken that experimentalism even further. Strange musical bedfellows bump up against one another at every turn—the fleeting classical string arrangements and trancelike, percussive distortion of “5 Years,” for example.

In headlong pursuit of the oblique and the challenging, Björk takes a potential tearjerker like “Unravel” and refuses to cry. One of many wrenching “ballads” on “Homogenic,” “Unravel” features Björk in a duet with herself. There’s something disturbingly chilly about Björk’s production here, from her gloomydockside atmospherics to the somber organ tones at the song’s fade.

Though she always keeps one ear tuned to movie soundtrack conventions, in some ways Björk embodies the willfully eccentric vocal musician that Yoko Ono could never sell to the public. Her status as a recognizable personality makes her too close to pop for electronic music’s devoted underground, yet her adventurousness keeps her a few paces ahead of general radio audiences.

With the dark introspection of “Homogenic,” she’s likely to find no clear-cut path between the two camps. And that’s probably just the way Björk wants it.

James Sullivan

publié dans San Francisco Chronicle - 27.09.1997

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