Homogenic Turns 20
They used to play Björk on The Grind. In the likely event that you don’t remember The Grind, it was an MTV dance show, a sort of early-’90s variant on American Bandstand or Soul Train, where attractive young people would spend a half-hour semi-listlessly bouncing around to whatever club tracks were hot at the moment. If I’m remembering right, it was usually stuff from the C+C Music Factory/Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch axis. They would usually tape episodes on the beach, presumably so the kids dancing could be wearing swimsuits. Eric Nies, a season-one cast member with a serious ab situation, was the host. This was not the place you would expect to find challenging music. And yet I have a vivid memory of watching early-’90s beach kids gyrating to “Big Time Sensuality,” a technicolor yawp of a single that was also a full-on club anthem.
When the solo-artist version of Björk exploded into international consciousness with 1993’s Debut, she was a deeply strange and unique version of a dance-pop star, but she was still a dance-pop star. Even on 1995’s Post, where she giddily veered in a dozen different aesthetic directions, she was still, on some level, a dance-pop star, and I wouldn’t be shocked if “Army Of Me” showed up on The Grind once or twice. The Grind was on its last legs by the time Björk released Homogenic in 1997, and Björk was done with dance-pop stardom. We never got to see kids dancing on the beach to “Jòga.” It just wouldn’t have made sense. Homogenic, which turns 20 today, was the moment that Björk broke from all that, when she dove full-on into finding new musical ways to explore her interiority. It’s the birth of the fearless, esoteric cult-artist version of Björk, the one who we still know today.
When Homogenic came out, Björk told SPIN she wanted it to reflect “one color, me in one state of mind.” After the explosive digressiveness of Post, an album that was nothing but radical departures, this new sense of focus was an even more radical departure. Björk had been living in London, and she’d gone through high-profile breakups with a few fellow artists. She’d gotten a lot of tabloid attention for punching out a paparazzo in Bangkok, and she’d gotten even more when an obsessed fan tried to send her a corrosive-acid bomb and then killed himself on video. So Björk retreated, both physically and musically. She wrote and recorded Homogenic in the Spanish seaside town of Malaga and in her Icelandic homeland. She picked out a small core of collaborators, including her old producer Howie B and Mark Bell, the experimental dance beatmaker who’d been making mindbending tracks under the name LFO. She took the dizzy, inward-looking tracks that she made with those producers, and she filled them out with chilly, otherworldly arrangements from an Icelandic string octet. And she intended for all of this to serve as a sort of musical tribute to Iceland, a very strange place.
Have you ever been to Iceland? It looks like the surface of the moon. Take a bus around the Icelandic countryside, and you won’t see a whole lot of plants. Instead, you’ll see strange, blackened formations of volcanic rock. You’ll see steam bubbling up from holes in the ground. You’ll see ocean everywhere. After spending 12 hours there once, my dad declared it the ugliest place he’d ever seen. I thought it was beautiful. It’s not part of any region. It’s its own alien landscape, with its own geography and its own sensibility. “I thought I could organize freedom / How Scandinavian of me,” Björk howls on “Hunter.” But Iceland’s not really Scandinavian, and Björk knows that; she reportedly meant the line as a dig against the way-more-organized societies of Sweden and Denmark. Markus Dravs, one of the album’s producers, has said that Björk wanted Homogenic to sound like “rough volcanoes with soft moss growing all over it,” exactly the sort of surreal image that probably seems natural to you if you grew up in Iceland.
And Homogenic is an alien landscape of its own. It really sounds like nothing else. The drums don’t sound like any other drums, organic or electronic. They never bang and rarely thump. Instead, they crunch and splat and hiss. The songs don’t have verses and choruses; they structure themselves instead around epiphanies and fugue states. The strings don’t push the songs toward respectability, which is what I feared when I started seeing the word “strings” in Homogenic reviews in 1997. Instead, they find whole new melodic tones for the whole thing, drifting and wafting and gently pushing against those weird, weird drums. Occasionally, you’ll hear a lonely accordion, and your brain won’t process it as an accordion, since it would never occur to a rational human to even consider the possibility that there’d be an accordion on an album like this one. There are tracks that could be bangers, like “Alarm Call” or “Pluto,” but they’re fractured and bent. The prettiest song, “All Is Full Of Love,” is an amniotic lullaby. The catchiest song, “Jòga,” is a staring-at-the-sky bliss-out. The whole album plays like Björk took “Isobel,” my favorite track on Post, and built something new out of it — not a genre, exactly, but a language, or a way to map the “emotional landscapes” that she sang about on “Jòga.”
And then there’s Björk’s voice, as much a natural wonder as any Icelandic lava formation. We’d gotten used to that voice by the time Björk made Homogenic, but we’d mostly heard her using it to express ecstatic joy and abandon. There’s more at work on Homogenic. There is, for instance, the way she murmurs, “He’ll never return it” — the “he” is the devil, the “it” is her heart” — on “Unravel.” There’s the wild, feverish self-rage in the way she stretches out the titular adjective on “Immature”: “How cooooulld / Aaaayyyeee / Beeeee / So aaaaaaah-immature?” And then there’s the way she taps into something deep and eternal on “Bachelorette,” a song that she co-wrote with the Icelandic poet Sjón because she wanted to make something “so epic.” She succeeded. “I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl” is a hell of an opening line.
It’s hard to imagine that Björk made Homogenic in the hopes of hitting some new commercial peak. Instead, the album plays like an abdication of that role, from which she was already moving away. And that’s how it was received. Björk was still a big deal, and Homogenic was still a big album. It charted around the world, as high as #4 in the UK and #2 in France. It eventually went gold, four years after its release, in the US, and you could usually encounter its strange, beautiful videos if you stayed up late enough watching MTV. (Those videos were some of the main reasons that I bought the Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham Directors Label DVDs when they came out a few years later.) And Homogenic has endured — partly because it’s a masterpiece, and partly because it’s been, in its own way, influential.
Madonna was certainly listening. Five months later, she released Ray Of Light, an album that feels like, in many ways, a cleaned-up pop take on Homogenic’s emotive vastness. (First single “Frozen,” in particular, was exactly the sort of Björk bite that Madonna should’ve been making in 1998.) And I hear echoes of the placid skitter of those drums in Radiohead’s Kid A. But more than any aesthetic influence it may have had, I think the real legacy of Homogenic is in the way the Björk of 1997 worked as a symbol of freedom, of the magical things that could happen when artists pushed themselves far enough into the unknown.
It’s instructive, I think, to note which artists were referencing Björk at the time. A few months before Homogenic came out, on the Wu-Tang Forever opener “Reunited,” RZA confoundingly rapped, “Talk strange like Björk / Great hero Jim Thorpe.” (Björk and the Wu-Tang Clan had been talking about working together on Homogenic, but the timing didn’t work out. I would’ve loved to hear what could’ve come out of those two forces coming together at that time.) A few months after the album came out, Timbaland sampled the windswept strings of “Jòga” on the video-version remix of Missy Elliott’s “Hit Em Wit Da Hee.” Björk and Timbaland did eventually work together, years later, on a few tracks from Björk’s Volta album, but those collaborations can’t compete with the electric thrill of hearing Missy’s voice over Björk’s strings when both artists were in the absolute zone. That’s also why it was so heartening to see those photos Missy and Björk smiling together backstage at FYF Fest a few months ago, delighting in each other’s presence. Both women are still capable of making great art, but neither one of them owes us anything. They’ve already been everywhere and done everything, and our world is so much richer because of what the two of them were doing 20 years ago.