The one-time anarchopunk from Iceland was now a global pop star, staging shows from Israel to China to New Zealand, collaborating with Europe's finest producers, and going platinum all over. But she could not elude attendant insanity of fame. She made headlines in 1996 for thrashing reporter Julie Kaufman at Bangkok International Airport. (Had this occurred a few years later, there's a good chance the footage would have been more viral than any music video.) She claimed the paparazzi had been harassing her and her son, and that Kaufman in particular had been pestering her for days; in any event, Kaufman did not press charges. In September of that year, an American exterminator named Ricardo López mailed a sulphuric acid bomb to the singer's London home before shooting himself in the head at the end of a disturbing video diary. The package was intercepted in time, but the incident shook Björk profoundly. López was obsessed with his conception of her as a kind of daughter -- though he was just 21 -- and angered by her relationship with the British drum'n'bass musician Goldie. Already prepared for the next stage of her career, Björk resolved to distance herself both from her playful image and the London electronic scene that had infused her output to date.
Out of the tumult came Homogenic, a towering electronic document that, true to its title, achieved an astounding cohesion. It's a rigorous work -- both in the structure and the singer's self-examination -- that never forsakes the human. Co-produced with LFO's Mark Bell, Homogenic pushes electronic forms past their breaking points, animating them with live instrumentation. The tension between Bell's skittering, sputtering beats and the Björk-moving-on-the-water arrangements -- courtesy of the Icelandic String Octet -- is exquisite. On "5 Years," the absurdly playful beat explosions and 8-bit keyboard programming race against a romantic string ascension. The swooping strings of "Joga" buttress Björk's frank declaration of a "state of emergency" before ceding, halfway through, to a muted passage that's essentially proto-dubstep.
"I thought I could organize freedom," she noted wryly on lead track "Hunter". "How very Scandinavian of me." Even as the production scales to IMAX size, Björk maintains an incisive interiority, stocked with arresting phrases and sardonic humor. The poppiest track, "Alarm Call," plays like futuristic new jack swing; against a funky bassline, she imagines herself "on a mountaintop/with a radio and good batteries" (chuckling as she sings this the second time) -- adding, "I'm no fucking Buddhist, but this is enlightenment." She's not wrong. As a deconstructive document, it's every bit the equal of Radiohead's Kid A. But Homogenic reclaims identity; Kid A laments its loss. The record concludes with "All Is Full of Love," perhaps Björk's most enduring composition. It exists in two main forms: the music-video version, and Howie B's remix, which appears on Homogenic. On both mixes, Björk projects a devotional majesty, a paradoxically gentle grandeur in the vein of Sinead O'Connor. The album version opens with an elongated, pulsing string passage. As Bell introduces fluttering accordion and hiss to the mix, Björk dials up the intensity to match before conceding to the synths. The final verse is a sort of call-and-response, with castigations ("You just ain't receiving/Your phone is off the hook/Your doors are all shut") contrasted with the simple fact of the title. The kind of big-time sensuality achieved here is captured by Chris Cunningham's landmark video, which depicts two robots kissing passionately while being assembled by machinery. It is here that Björk moved from idiosyncratic dance savant to full-on sonic explorer. There would be no going back.
We like to talk about artists’ contradictory impulses, but with Björk, it’s more apt to talk about unities. In a career that’s nearing its fourth decade, she’s coupled many of the major dualities: intellect and body, auditory and visual, nature and technology. A map of her stylistic forays reads like a condensation of Rip It Up And Start Again: a very early folk start, then stints in post- and anarcho-punk outfits, followed by a series of idiosyncratic dance broadsides pasted onto pop’s center pole. She could have made a career of issuing albums in the vein of her first two: textured, au courant electronic-pop. Instead, she invested her capital into a series of ambitious, sprawling sonic expeditions.
Björk is frequently described as a “pop star,” which makes sense as component concepts. She’s placed 20 singles in the top 40 of the enviably omnivorous UK charts. No one has used the medium of short-form music videos to display so much wonder; in doing so, she collaborated with a staggering number of film, design, and fashion heavies: Michel Gondry, Sophie Muller, Chris Cunningham, Alexander McQueen, Eiko Ishiokam, Spike Jonze — even Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi. She’s sold millions of records, has a legion of dedicated fans, and the financial freedom to attempt nearly every project she can imagine. And still, she is not quite a pop star, at least not Stateside. To most Americans, the mention of her name conjures visions of swans and assault charges. She can headline Bonnaroo — as she is doing this year, alongside Paul McCartney, Mumford & Sons, and Tom Petty — but she’s never placed a single higher than No. 84 on the Hot 100.
Still, Björk exists in that rarified air of commercial success, critical adoration, and creative freedom. She’s a saint in the indie-rock community — an amusing happenstance, considering the major-label resources that have been at her disposal since her Sugarcubes days, to say nothing of the genres (electronic, dance-pop, jazz) she investigated. But the reason she’s beloved are obvious: She has made a career out of succeeding on her own terms, ever since her Crass-associated days with KUKL. The stereotype of her as an aloof Icelandic sprite may persist, but Björk remains a restless, collaborative artist, capable of effortlessly expressing her humanity through whatever raw material interests her. Discussing Kate Winslet’s performance in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (directed by frequent collaborator Gondry), Björk noted to the Guardian’s Liz Hoggard that “[u]sually when you see females in movies, they feel like they have these metallic structures around them, they are caged in by male energy. But she could be at her full volume without restrictions.” And so it has been for Björk in a career that shows no sign of creative regression.
What follows is a ranking of Björk’s seven studio albums, with her soundtracks for Lars von Trier and Matthew Barney omitted. Let the music-video ranking debate commence in the comments. Start the Countdown here.