CLASSIC REVIEW: Björk, Homogenic
Updated: Jan 9, 2022
Grade: A++ (Best Album of All Time)
The perfect album cover can both inform the listener what they are in store for while also capturing where the artist is or was at a very specific moment in time. SOPHIE’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides shows the fully transitioned producer covered in plastic, posed like a figurine in what looks strikingly like the transcendental purple ocean from Twin Peaks: The Return. This tells us we are in for Product 2.0, a series of tracks featuring sounds that are fully original, being bred from the very bottom of human consciousness, where no preconceived notions exist. The Downward Spiral from Nine Inch Nails has a cover that looks like the rotting and haunted walls of the house where Sharon Tate was murdered, the place where the album was recorded. What springs forth from this record is industrial music that is covered in filth and pierces the listener’s ear like a rusty nail. Bjork is an artist that has always been very careful with the promotional material surrounding her records; her music videos are like short films, she even cancelled a tour with Radiohead in the late ‘90s because her stage was too elaborate. Debut’s cover shows a nervous novice, making colorless music like the orchestral and baroque classics she grew up on with a tinge of what’s happening now. Post feels like Dorothy going to Oz, the travel from Iceland to the U.S. is displayed in vivid Technicolor and her hands are moved away from her face, she shows a little more of herself. Homogenic, my personal favorite Björk album and cover, tells a very different story.
“[For the cover] I had 10 kilos of hair on my head, and special contact lenses and a manicure that prevented me from eating with my fingers, and gaffer tape around my waist and high clogs so I couldn't walk easily." she described her experience to the Chicago Tribune. In addition to that, she has these metal rings on her neck that hold it in place. Although she had been making music since the age of 11, and the meteoric rise between her work with The Sugarcubes to all the bells, whistles, costumes and award shows that came post-Post clearly got to Björk. It was as if she got to the end of the Yellow Brick Road, and realized that all this acclaim was really just a curtain manipulation. Somewhere between a failed bomb threat by a racist fan and beating the shit out of that rude reporter (shout to Discord and Rhyme Podcast for that context), Björk truly realized that there’s no place like home. In the case of the immaculate Homogenic, home was not just back in Iceland, but within herself. Rather than channel the hippy rock of Janis Joplin or the Jazz of Miles Davis that she had grown up on, Björk felt it necessary at this point in her career to really tell the world who she was. Sonically, this entailed teaming with Mark Bell and an Icelandic string octet as well as an elaborate team of engineers and producers to capture what she called “volcanic beats”. The lyrical front is where she was able to be “contemplative” as she put it in an interview with the French program Tracks, “I looked through all the diaries...snapshots...songs and all the things I’ve done and think ‘that was fun’” Epic poet and frequent collaborator Sjon was brought in for two of the more “Icelandic” tracks on the record to really make the songs feel like unofficial national anthems, and Björk used a traditional singing style of her country to homogenize her personal style and influences with that of her Iceland.
The result is a record that has one uniform genre that can really only be described as “Björk”. It’s not a trip-hop stadium slammer like “Army of Me” followed by an American standard followed by another style, but something closer to “Hyperballad” or “I Miss You”, a marriage of what Bjork calls “nature” and “techno” (past and future, respectively), to pinpoint what is going on right now. It is her most singular work, a revealing and big-budget picture of Björk the lover, the mother and the artist in 1997. While future works like Vulnicura or Vespertine got a little more emotionally close, this was the first project that changed her from the flavor of the year to a G.O.A.T. The record fittingly starts with disorientation through squelching synths, marching machine drums and cooing, it’s like a sea of cool red mist surrounding the listener and immersing them.
“Hunter” is a fucking enormous song, a hulking procession of Bond strings and vocal gymnastics. “I thought I could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of me!” she belts out, and this is a statement of purpose. Her music exists in the sweet spot between insane exploration (hence her later work with Arca) and her obsession with orchestration, regimented IDM and cohesive songwriting. You can hear it in the skittering drum fills that are underlined by repetitive “ooo”s and string arrangements; it's like capturing lightning in a bottle every single time she makes a new album. “Joga” is no different in its approach, she is in a “state of emergency”, with all the chaos and uncharted waters that come with it, but as she continues, you realize this is not an accident “how beautiful to be in a state of emergency”. As Tirzah did so brilliantly on her latest record, Bjork’s life is an open book that is one with her songwriting. Instrumentally, this is as definitive as her great “Hyperballad”, as she sings the chorus, the world around her is cracking with bass, heavy strings and blasts of what sound that I would venture to guess deeply inspired groups like Death Grips.
While this record doesn’t cycle through genres, it definitely has its peaks and valleys. “Unravel” and “Immature” are two sobering and calming moments on the album instrumentally, she miraculously continues to keep a wide vocal range regardless of what is backing her. “Unravel” tells a tale of heartbreak, emotional “unraveling” as “the devil grins”. I could almost hear FKA twigs singing “They're waiting/They're watching/They're watching us/They're hating” as the trip-hop drums hit and backmasked electronics slowly play like a funeral for a past relationship. The suffocating, sharp neo-noir of “All Neon Like” inhabits a similar space with this pummeling bass drum looping over and over with intermittent hits that sound like something of the N64 Goldeneye soundtrack. The track is very buzzing, but still hollow and echoey, as Björk continues to spin paradoxes, this time about healing someone just cutting a massive incision into them. Just like on Post, Björk is this massive, alien-like creature who wants love. She is relatable yet hard to read, and never had this reality been more clear than on the lyrically perplexing and stunning “Bachelorette”. As I write this, I bang on my desk with every drum hit, this song is so fucking visceral, if you don’t like it then just unfollow us because this song is to my taste. This is one of two songs that Icelandic epic poet Sjon helped with, and it shows. In stark contrast to many of simple, mantra-like choruses that pop up on Homogenic, this song is steeped in metaphors about killer whales, blood fountains and hot coals. But even with all the poetry and subversion, at the core, there is a universal human experience in unrequited love, “You're the one who grows distant/When I beckon you near”.
The second half of the record is full of peaks, beat wise and vocally. “5 Years” is built around this cute, playful little piano melody, that transitions into soaring strings towards the latter end of the track. The percussion is so bouncy and sticky, as Björk screams, “I’MMMMMMMMMMMM SOOOOO BOOOOOOOOOOOREEDDD OF COOOOWWWAAAARRDSS!!!!”. By the end of the song, it feels like watching a volcanic eruption as she stands on the bottom of it, waiting for the lava to make her one with the rocks. Truthfully, between the mutual inspiration of the Spanish desert landscapes and mixture of contemporary dance with symphonic sounds, I could see Eartheater’s Phoenix as a direct descendant of not just this song, but of the “Björk” genre. It’s really interesting, all the songs that I would consider to be the greatest of all time are all in the first half, whether it be “Bachelorette” or “Joga” or the opener, but the ones that are my personal favorites all bring the album to a close. “Alarm Call” is just so much fun, “I’m no fucking Buddhist!/But this is enlightenment” she sings over the record’s second most modern beat. It’s this interesting combo of hip-hop and avant garde that is reminiscent of “Satellite” by Nine Inch Nails. It feels like a funky boombox proclamation from the mountain tops, scaring all the monkeys and birds from their respective trees. “Pluto” mostly ditches strings and songwriting altogether, but it still sees Björk on her own terms. This sounds like something you might hear at a rave, but it's the most lyrically and vocally experimental on the entire record, and on top of that, it’s literally the deepest cut on the whole record. This is not an appeal to the masses or a pop single ordered by the record label, it’s just another angular and sonically adventurous expression from the mind of Björk and Björk alone.
Fittingly, the record comes to a close with the pulsating and symphonic “All Is Full of Love”, which feels like a necessary cool down after such a gargantuan album. Like “Hunter” or even “Headphones” from Post, it feels like a tingly guided proto-ASMR meditation. In earbuds, as Björk is dueting with herself, especially as she repeats the phrase “all is full of love”, I feel like I’m literally surrounded on all sides by her. In front of me “ALL IS FULL OF LOVE”, distantly to my right going around the back of my head “ALL IS FULL OF LOVE”, to my left coming in closer and closer with each syllable “ALL IS FULL OF LOVE”. I hate to keep making comparisons to modern artists, but damn this has got to be one of the top three most influential electronic albums ever made, this sounds like some shit Animal Collective would’ve shot for in the early ‘00s. It sounds like a bunch of robotic cicadas are surrounding me and I’m somehow not afraid. It sounds like life coming out into the sunlight, the producer Howie B did an incredible job here. I honestly knew this would be an A+ in the same way all those classic Beatles or Rolling Stones albums are (aka I don’t give a fuck about them but I know they’re important), but never did I expect that this would land in my all time personal favorites. Wow, just wow. I have no other words than to say, I am in awe of every single sound, lyric, piece of single artwork, live performance -- all of it -- that Homogenic has to offer. It feels insulting to give this an A+, it deserves an A++. This might be my favorite album of all time. Fuck. (UPDATE: It still is).