Björk’s landmark album, Homogenic, is a pioneering fusion of the ancient and the futuristic
As Homogenic hits 20, US music critic Sasha Geffen looks back on one of the Icelandic maverick’s brightest sparks of genius
Original Release Date: 22 September, 1997
Label: One Little Indian
In the fourth most haunted bar in Chicago, I am watching my bandmate cover Björk’s Unravel. He has his guitar, a Microkorg, and a drum machine; he’s perched on the shallow stage toward the front of the bar, but most people aren’t listening. It’s a quiet, slow song, not exactly the type that calls a room full of buzzed college kids to attention. We’re across the street from DePaul University, and the bar has a feel of dorm room run-off, the place juniors and seniors go once they’re old enough to order neat whiskies and Old Styles, to feel like part of the world for the first time. All of this is happening, plus the ghosts under the floorboards, and my bandmate is singing Unravel, ignored.
Some months ago we’d listened to Homogenic, Björk’s third album, on the drive back to Chicago from Austin, where we’d played a handful of unofficial SXSW sets in bars and parking lots. It’s a long drive and we were on edge, having been stopped by a Texas police officer on a power trip for going four miles over the speed limit. There’s listening to an album, and then there’s listening to an album at 75 miles an hour on the endless flat highways of middle America, light falling through the open sunroof, after days of hauling gear and playing 15 minute sets and packing everything up and doing it all over again. We were exhausted and Homogenic was a haven, a womb, a space for rejuvenation, propelling us home in a leaky Honda we weren’t sure would clear the last two hundred miles.
Twenty years after its release and still there are few albums as ambitious and fully realised as Homogenic. Several of Björk’s proteges, like Arca and Anohni and Grimes, have come close, but there is nothing I’ve heard since that transports me so completely. In a documentary about the making of the album, Björk stomps over Icelandic ground with a sampler, stealing volcanic crunches for the hectic beats of 5 Years and Pluto. She oversees string sections as they play the staccato notes on Hunter, mimicking the drum machines that flutter in the right channel. Violins pulled from the symphony and beats pulled from a Berlin rave mesh together, high and low culture pulsing in the same vein.
Most of these songs are love songs, whether they’re about a friend (Jóga) or a longtime partner (Unravel) or an object of unrequited affection (All Is Full Of Love) or the whole human race (Alarm Call). The technical feats of the album’s production are astounding, but they weren’t accomplished for their own sake. Björk wove together all that incongruous instrumentation to hammock her voice, whose polyvalent longing tends to overpower simpler accompaniments. Her love, as she sings it, takes strange shapes. It’s not undying or ethereal; it’s material, prone to decay. “When you are away my heart comes undone / Slowly unravels like a ball of yarn,” she sings. “So when you come back, we’ll have to make new love.” On All Neon Like, her love’s a razor blade, cutting open skin to fill her beloved with healing light. Neglected love, violent love, love so encompassing it becomes an environment – these are the tricky forms Björk renders fearlessly, with a voice that could split atoms.
Twenty years after Homogenic’s release, it’s strange to see men doubt that women produce their own music, to see men wonder if women are even capable of programming computers. More men have followed Björk than she has followed men – it’s impossible not to hear her influence on contemporaries like Radiohead, who released their own alien planet Kid A three years after Homogenic and have kept drum machines in their arsenal ever since. Kid A’s often credited with pulling popular music from the 20th century into the strange new landscape of the 21st, but Björk had already envisioned that landscape in clear, uncompromising detail. The world we’re in now is the one she shaped to make a home for a love too big to fit anywhere else.