By 1996 Bjork had justified her departure from The Sugarcubes with a highly successful and critically acclaimed solo career. Both “Debut” and “Post” had presented a woman who could meld together various genres almost at will and produce arresting songs. 1996 would prove to be a year when things would change for Bjork causing her to refocus her approach to public life and her persona. She had certainly attained fame but unfortunately, there was an unimagined cost as Dame Fame seemed to turn on her. She would gain unfortunate press for a violent highly publicized incident with the paparazzi, experience relationship heartbreak and even worse have her life and those of her family put at risk by a stalker. These incidences would inform Bjork’s decision to return home to Iceland to work on her next album which would become “Homogenic”.
This move would allow her to reexamine her persona and how she was being conveyed in the media. Where Bjork was once running towards notoriety, with Homogenic Bjork would start to pull back from the approachability she once encouraged with her fellow humans. The soundscape on Homogenic would reflect the massive amount of musical craftsmanship she had attained but also a more focused laser-like approach to her output.
The songwriting for the album actually started when Bjork returned home to London after extensive touring. Writing the songs became a cathartic release and a form of therapy. Prior colleague Marcus Dravs was invited to work in her home developing the songs. It was a very casual home recording setup. This setup would break apart when a disturbing stalker Ricardo Lopez attempted to send an acid bomb to Bjork’s London home. He would commit suicide on videotape just after dispatching the bomb in the mail. Bjork would return to Iceland to escape the ensuing media circus and then decamp to Spain to record Homogenic. In the El Cortijo Studios in Malaga, Spain Bjork would attempt to regain her equilibrium. She would work with Guy Sigworth, Howie B, Markus Dravs and for the first time Mark Bell. This initial collaboration with Bell would prove significant as he would become a major collaborating influence for Bjork on her future works.
Homogenic would be a departure from Bjork’s prior works. Gone were the sweet harmonies and dance colleges. Instead on offer were fusions of icy strings, stuttering abstraction, unusual instrumentation along with Icelandic sounds. The songs would be direct and simple but difficult to pigeonhole. The majority of the song’s themes were about love, failed relationships and their aftermaths. Lyrically she picks up where she left off examining loneliness, sexual desire, seeking for her soulmate and being a stranger in a strange land. Homogenic would place all Bjork’s contradictions on display. It is also the first time Bjork attempted to create a conceptually self-contained release. This new focus would foreshadow her future off centre conceptual avant-garde offerings. The conceptual focus of the album would be in part inspired by Iceland’s natural features; volcanoes, earthquakes, snowstorms and geysers. These things were all elemental and simple yet not controlled by man. That idea is what Bjork attempted to capture writing once again with Sjon to attain that epic feeling. She also reflected a counterbalance of modern hi-tech, electric beats and studio effects with classical string composing.
Bjork had always followed her muse and with each release in her first trilogy, she accomplishing something different. Debut would be the clean break from the Sugarcubes eccentricity. While Post would display Bjork as something other than a one trick pony developing her craft while gaining commercial success. On Homogenic she is displayed as a master alchemist blending electronic beats with evocative strings and earnest lyrics all the while trailblazing into uncharted territory.
Homogenic would mark the end of the initial Bjork trilogy from which she would establish her platform to go off into creative vistas few people could envision. This would enable her to distance herself from the off-kilter pixie persona that had through no fault of her own led down a dark path. Alexander Mc Queen would provide the album cover art that would birth Bjork’s next persona, the woman warrior fighting with the weapons of love. This image would be both ancient in origins and futuristic replacing the idealistic flower child that had defined Bjork’s image.
Homogenic would be critically revered, with many granted it the honour of being one of the most influential albums of the decade. The album would reach 28 on the US Billboard Charts and #4 on the UK Album Charts. It would be nominated for a Best Alternative Music Performance Grammy in 1998 losing to Radiohead’s epic Ok Computer, what a year for music, huh? She would win Best International Female at the BRIT Awards and Homogenic would gain gold record status in the US, Canada and the UK. She may have lost to Radiohead at the Grammys but Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke in interviews from the period had called Unravel one of the most beautiful songs he had ever heard. Many other critics and listeners would agree that there is untold beauty on display throughout this landmark release. The record captured an ultimately resilient Bjork battered by events looking for safety and comfort from the world that suddenly seemed strange and foreboding to such a wide-eyed individual.
Homogenic begins with the dramatic Hunter. This track is filled with magnificent beats and staccato strings. There is a lurking sinister feeling with Bjork providing otherworldly vocals in an icicle crisp surrounding. Here portrayed is mankind as hunted, solitarily searching with the understanding that we all die alone. The luminous Joga is one of my all-time favourites and truly signifies that Bjork was following another path for the release. The glorious strings and full-throated vocal deliver urgency and emotion. Bjork is unguarded in expressing her confusion about the unfairness and hurt meted out by the world. Offered is the premise that all things are interconnected whether we want them to be or not. The track is one of Bjork’s all-time masterworks.
The ravishingly beautiful Unravel is so simple yet so touching in its ability to convey the challenge of maintaining a romantic relationship. There is the eternal hope that love can be reconstructed. The knowledge that love if left unattended unravels like a ball of yarn. This strong imagery had a significant impact, “While you are away my heart comes undone slowly unravels”. In the end, Unravel is a lament about love and forlorn hope. What makes it even more magnificent is the minimal strings and murky polyrhythms that deliver a splendid classic. Bachelorette is another jaw-droppingly dramatic song. There is keening emotional action as this ode to self-sacrifice unspools. The narrator is “The steam you drink from, the cinders underfoot, the whisper in the water sent for you to hear”. The strings build almost unbearable pathos and conclude with “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.” This identifying of the eternally unresolved quandary that is life and love holds unforgettable impact. Bachelorette is a glorious meld of the classic with modern sonics.
All Neon Like is a portrayal of luminous love, the halo effect. It also looks at the give and take of love, with emotional safety and completeness on offer. This beautiful love song is a combination of minimalistic flourishes and industrial thump as Bjork provides a most alluringly sinuous vocal. This track is brilliantly paired with 5 Years which conveys all the frustration Bjork was feeling after a highly public break up with Goldie. On the track, she calls out the unfairness of being blamed for the breakup due to a suggested inability to handle love. Bjork is having none of that as she vents, “I’m so bored with cowards that say they want then they can’t handle… you can’t handle love it’s obvious you can’t handle.” The sentiment is conveyed over a simple keyboard and scratch background with percussion beating out the anger and frustration Bjork was feeling. This song is the least dreamy and most gritty track on the release.
Bjork as if knowing she had lost her composure continues on with Immature where she is chastising herself for believing anyone can fix her but herself, “How could I be so immature? To think he could replace, the missing elements in me, how extremely lazy of me.” The song is simple and straightforward. The strings and xylophones make for a complex sound that is engaging and is another one of my favourites on the release.
Alarm Call is a more dance-influenced track when compared with others on the release. Here Bjork recognizes her desire to change the world, “I want to go on a mountain top with a radio and good batteries and play a joyous tune to free the human race from suffering.” However she is also coming up against the cost to herself personally and her frustration at being misunderstood, “I’m no fucking Buddhist but this is enlightenment.” This is Bjork at her feistiest, unafraid when confronted by adversity and facing it down to gain victory. Pluto is a song loaded with exploding energy; this digitally pixilated dance tune speaks to rebirth and renewal. It bounces against the limitations of humanity and ends in a primal scream therapy session at the end.
The final track is All is Full of Love and displays Bjork coming full circle from all the examinations and doubts about love in all its various manifestations. There is the beautiful image of love being all around and in the most unexpected places and that you have to open yourself to love to find it. Underneath the narrative is this yearning for love and the eternal belief that true love will manifest itself in time. The oscillating stings and dreamy Asiatic harp create a wonderful atmosphere for the song to transpire. The track and album end with this positive lyric, All is full of love.
There is a particular bravery in Bjork’s combining of achingly luminous songs about love and heartbreak with the wider scope of facing an adverse world and not giving up. There is a beauty and sparseness throughout the album that makes it goosebump producing. Bjork chronicles her journey through failed high profile relationships, tabloid fodder encounters and finally the attempted acid bombing to reveal an underlying homesickness and resiliency. Homogenic would capture Bjork at the point where having reached the fame and notoriety she had always yearned for; she then realized it was all dross. It is at this point with Homogenic that Bjork starts running in the opposite direction from fame. She tossed aside the persona that oversimplified who she was and instead displayed her inner self; fiery and volatile and not ready to be tamed by the events occurring around her. By her unguarded emotional display in her music, she was able to gain control over her public image. She would recast herself creating an arms’ length accessibility while protecting herself.
This would allow her to move on to create her later masterworks and ever follow her muse where ever it would lead. Homogenic was the evidence that Bjork had synthesized all that had come before, good and bad, and was on her way to finding her next new voice on 2001’s Vespertine. There can be no doubt that the cathartic Homogenic should be considered a masterwork among Bjork’s many; happy 20th Anniversary to a brilliant creation and creator.