Björk’s greatest skill is not her remarkable voice or rich songwriting talent. It is that her vigorous pursuit of sounds both experimental and avant-garde has not in any way harmed or hindered her commercial clout. This is a skill—to write songs that touch many without diluting the spirit of exploration—that few possess, in fact it’s a trail that pop stars generally shy away from. She is the antithesis of Britpop or Dadrock’s reverence of the past, the anti-Kula Shaker or Ocean Colour Scene. For Björk, modernism is all.
So it’s little surprise that while her third solo album, Homogenic, is probably her most weird, it is also her best. You will not have heard much stuff that sounds like this before, certainly not within the confines of actual songs, although it is full of textures and tricks that will no doubt be aped aplenty in the coming months. Sonically, this album revolves around a different solar system to most of its earthbound competition.
That said, the early reports of Homogenic’s picture being made up basically of “beats and strings” is not false—but it’s only a tiny square of the canvas. There are beats, yes, but they are not uniform ; they crunch, they sloosh, they scrunch, they ripple... they are made of many different shades of beat. And the strings do not merely help colour in passages as they do when employed on rock records ; here, on songs like the tear-stained single Joga and the album’s searing highlight Bachelorette, they sing their own dewy-eyed language.
Yet with all this going on alongside the patter of otherworldly keyboards and rumbles of bass like those from passing junglist BMWs, it is Björk’s voice that lifts the songs higher (only once, on the jarring Pluto, do all these elements clash). And that’s because the trick and beauty of Homogenic is wrapped up within all this dazzling sonic packaging, in songs that spin, piercing, from love to broken (and breaking) hearts to love again.
Homogenic was written and produced largely by Björk herself, with Mark Bell from LFO her main recording/ production foil. There is a large collection of musicians who have helped record various songs. Howie B weighs in with the production of All Is Full Of Love’s spacey, shimmering farewell, and some of the strings were scored by disco legend Deodato. However it’s the fact that this has been mainly crafted by Björk and Bell which gives the album a cohesive feel that her last record, Post, lacked. She’s locked in a space capsule blasting out to space again, but this time neither Tricky nor any big bands have been invited, and the effect is less distracting.
In fact, for the first 30 minutes or so of Homogenic, the effect is mesmerising. The five songs that make up this portion of the record ripple with heart-splitting melody and bedazzle with juicy new sounds. The opening Hunter is an eerie announcement, a scattering of keyboards and bass boom usher in spooky, roving strings and Björk’s multi-tracked admission that she is the hunter. It’s a bit like The Rolling Stones’ 2000 Light Years From Home, only beamed back from another planet and sung in a new language. This is met full-on by Joga’s open-hearted wail, the only time the music really boils down to beats and strings, and Unravel’s sweet, Anchor Song-ish avowal of love : “While you’re away, my heart comes undone, slowly unravels in a ball of yarn,” she sings beside a spray of accordion, “the devil collects it with a grin... he’ll never return it, so when you return we’ll have to make new love !”
But it’s next, on Bachelorette, that Björk hammers home one of her best songs to date. This is like Isobel from her last album, but lashed out to sea on a squall of strings that sound like they’ve been scored by some brilliant Indian film composer (in fact, it’s Deodato) and outlines the dynamics of a relationship : “I’m a tree that grows hearts, one for each that you take/You’re the intruder’s hand, I’m the branch that you break.” After that and All Neon Like’s wonderful and luminous soft distortion, the emotional pace of the album dips somewhat with 5 Years’ crunchy anger, although it contains a nifty put-down of an ex : “You’re the one who’s missing out but you won’t notice until after five years—if you live that long !”
There are further dizzy highs, though, in the sunny, stuttering disco of Alarm Call and All Is Full Of Love’s soft electro blanket, with only Pluto’s messy techno-punk spitefully breaking the mood. It sits uncomfortably among the rest of this remarkable record and is one experiment that would have been best off staying in the laboratory.
But it cannot dim the blinding achievement of this brilliant record. It is here, on Homogenic, that Björk has delivered her most emotional, highly-charged and groovy record, as well as a stinging triumph for the spirit of adventure.