For fans following the career of an artist who has risen from obscurity to almost mainstream popularity, watching the career of someone like Bjork can be bittersweet. Her latest work no longer inspires me in the way it did ten or so years ago, but her work still demands attention. While not her last great album, Homogenic the third in a string of interesting records might be the last of the truly great ones.
Of all the Bjork albums, Homogenic remains my favorite. It seems to embody everything I have come to expect from the Icelandic singer. Bjork’s music has mystery, drama and surrealism set to quirky rhythms like no one else. Coming from Iceland might suggest a kind of strangeness on its own, but Bjork juxtaposes styles from other cultures into her music as suggested on the cover art of Homogenic. This may have been the high point in her ability to juggle her art house ambitions with pop success.
As her commercial high point, Homogenic presents an evolved sound with commercial appeal while keeping just enough of weirdness in tact to keep her as the go to girl of musical and visual innovation. Despite the many dance and hip hop collaborators including Howie B, the sound was unmistakably Bjork.
Hip hop has figured into Bjork’s music before, as far back as Debut. On Homogenic, the album starts out with the break-beat styled fury of “Alarm Call”. While the ‘dance’ tracks have a certain mechanical angst to them, it’s the slow to mid tempo songs where Homogenic set new standards in post nuclear balladry. Like most Bjork albums Homogenic has a dark apocalyptic undertone laced with moments of optimism. “Joga” is as soaring as it is beautiful and ominous with symphonic flourishes on top of menacing industrial drum beats.
The foreboding tone continues with “All is Full of Love”, easily one of my favorite Bjork tracks if not her most beautiful ballad. A soft heartbeat-like bass line underlines a song that gradually builds on strings and the energy of Bjork’s vocals. In fitting Bjork fashion the video for “All is Full of Love” is both creepy and sensual with a saucy meeting of robots. It might have been the kind of thing Rodger Troutman sang about in “Computer Love”, but any raunchiness is removed by the stark white environment of the clean room (see video below).
The sterile surrealism seen in Homogenic’s visuals persists thorough out its 10 tracks (5 of them singles). A cold synth sound that might have made other albums feel metallic only compliments Bjork’s unusual blending of warm and cold textures to create her unique Icelandic sound. “Hunter” for instance contains traditional European folk instruments and their digital counterparts with militaristic drums adding to the sense of drama.
In a way all of Bjork’s music is about some kind of drama. It usually goes without saying that there is some kind of visual that accompanies the songs in video or art installation form. By Homogenic Bjork was seen at one of the industries innovators in the merging of visuals and music. The drama around songs like “Bachelorette” or “Unravel” could have easily been converted into a musical revue.
Homogenic is Bjork at the top of her art game. Shortly after this album she changed her artistic direction once again into the further real of the abstract. Needless to say some of what I liked about her music on Homogenic – that balance between artsy abstractions and pop sensibilities would lost to a small degree moving forward. Bjork was never one to stay in one place musically and by Selmasongs in 2000 she had moved on again.
Nowadays there are people like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj who have sized on some of the weirdness of Bjork, but have combined it with mainstream pop sensibilities. I don’t know if Bjork can be any stranger in a world that expects as much from it dance pop divas, but it’s always interesting to see what she will do next.