Saturday, January 26, 2008

[011] Homogenic

Album: Homogenic
Artist: Björk
Release Date: September 1997
Label: Elektra
Producers: Björk & Mark Bell, with Guy Sigsworth & Howie B.

“Electricity and equipment are just tools. Instead of wood or leather or metal, and all these things that we so far make music out of, stroking a string... We're using electricity and to make for the ear. For me, that is probably what I would call 'techno'...
I find it so amazing when people tell me that electronic music has not got soul, and they blame the computers, they got the finger and point at the computers like, 'There's no soul here!' It's like, you can't blame the computer. If there's not soul in the music, it's because nobody put it there...and it's not the tool's fault."
- Björk, from a 1997 documentary on her

This week, my brother Ian got married, some say the ultimate example of love. He and I don’t often delve into our private lives when we talk – we mostly talk about music, and I guess that’s why I’ve decided to mention him in my entries more than others, and kind of make him a part of this project. He’s been one of the most vocal readers, writing that Daft Punk addendum, emailing and calling and texting constructive criticism and rebuttals. He called me to talk about Radiohead’s The Bends, and he explained that what he takes from that album is that it was the last time Radiohead sang about romantic love. I found this interesting, because I never think of him as the kind of person that dwells on lyrical sentiment; I think of him as a fiend for sonic texture and beats, like me. As he loves he wife, he and I love new sound. But Björk’s Homogenic is a unique and earnest intersection of these sensibilities – exploding romance through minimal prose and quilts of elctrobeats and chilled string quartets. I have always loved Homogenic the most out of all her albums because I have always felt the songs were some of the most mentally tactile compositions of sound I have ever heard. Like, say, Trent Reznor or El-P, Björk and producer Mark Bell took things they created in a digital realm, and made them sound organic and elemental by fraying the edges of something inherently smooth; imperfection denotes life because nature favors chaos. But where I initially loved this album for its sonic interpretations of the Icelanic landscapes in Björk’s mind, I now also love it for its message of love.

I’ve always thought that Radiohead and Björk have had an artistic connection, stemming from the similar creative arcs through their 1995 and 1997 offerings, and their subsequent exploration of electronic music; it could be said that the peak of the arcs are where they intersect, Björk’s duet with Thom Yorke on “I’ve Seen It All, from her Selmasongs mini-album. That positions Homogenic as the spiritual cousin to OK Computer, and yet where that album is about the relationship of man with machine, and a prediction of the disconnecting of modern society, Homogenic feels like Björk’s reclamation of the earth under her feet, kissing Iceland’s wind-burned cheek. Post is, like The Bends, about romantic love, the euphoric qualities of it, but Homogenic is also an album of love (and not only because it’s Björk’s favorite subject), the difference being that I would say that its love is adult love, realistic love, the kind of love that accepts the possibility that it can all go wrong, and what you take from these messages of love depends on who you are as a person.

Thom Yorke took from it what he has said is his favorite song. “Unravel”, an achingly delicate ballad which Radiohead recently covered on one of their webcasts, is cast in cascading pastel tones, humming organ drones caressed by digitally purring harps, and it exhibits Björk’s fervently patient side. As she waits for her lover’s return, their love eroding into the darkness, she stands firm, faithful and insistent that it will one day be whole again. Ian and I talked about Homogenic at the wedding, and he said he always felt that the album, and “Unravel”, came from a dark , deep pain, so it seems to me that he was struck by the lyrics about “the devil”, the sway of the unwanted developments in Björk’s life. On the other hand, I feel that both the album and the song originate from a place in which Björk is done with pain, and now has returned with the strength to right any wrongs. I feel that the love on Homogenic is a renewed love.

The album as a love letter to Iceland manifests in a few different ways. In many of the songs, the lyrics directed at a lover can be also seen as directed at Björk’s homeland. There’s a wonderfully telling correlation between the music on the album and the tribute to the island nation that she and others have made, and that is that the title alludes to the generally singular sound and tone of the album, which stems from an artistic reaction to the genre-hopping of the previous albums. Where Debut and Post were about the freedom to explore anywhere and anything, and their varied approaches illustrate that attitude, Homogenic represents the comfort of home, and as such the chosen palette that Björk works from is less wild and fragmented – it’s calm. To further the comfort, the jarring electronics that propel the rhythms are juxtaposed against tender string arrangements that sooth the listener, conjuring visions of fields, or emerald green grass and silvery blue ice. The best examples of this are the album’s first two tracks, “Hunter” and “Jòga”. On the former, Björk lays it bare in the first moments, singing, “If travel is searching, and home has been found, I’m not stopping – I’m going hunting.” The rising and falling of the marching snare drum unfurls like green hills of the Icelandic countryside, accordion blowing by like bitter winds as she allows, “Thought I could organize freedom – how Scandinavian of me”, setting the stage for an album of lyrical self-realization set against a backdrop of nationalism interpreted through music. On the gorgeous latter, the strings are cold and smooth like sheets of ice and the beat lumbers and crashes like an earthquake, as Björk speaks of “emotional landscapes”, presenting a catchphrase for the glacial “Icelandic techno” that inhabits this album.

The sweeping, urbane ballad “Bachelorette” stands out from the rest of the album, placing itself apart from the rest of the landscapes, almost like the cities that dot the countryside. But sonically, the reverse is apparent, as it is the least electronic song on the album – or at least it feels that way – pastoral despite its luxuriant, theatrical crescendos and the din of percussive bursts. The lyrics, the most fully realized of all the songs here, tells of an uneasy love, full of images of nature and wildlife; it’s possible to think that the words are sung by Iceland to Björk, globe-trotting pop star, Björk subconsciously expressing her guilt in leaving her home in lines lik, “You are the one who grows distant, my love, when I beckon you near”.

Elsewhere, the sensual, pulsing “All Neon Like” simmers like the hot springs of the country’s resorts as Björk sends her affection through cryptic code, her voice swooping from a holler to a murmur, mumbling something about halos, webs, cocoons, a turtleheart, and of course the luminous beam that feeds you, whatever that means. What’s important is that her emotion comes through, splitting apart like light through a prism, shining bright colors across your mind’s eye and filling you with warmth. Where “All Neon Like” simmers, the pounding “Pluto” explodes, literally: “Excuse me / But I just have to explode / Explode this body off me”. Like Iceland’s active volcanos, “Pluto” sprays its blistering mess everywhere, the onslaught of cycling noises and thumping beat pushing Björk to the brink until she all she can do is scream over and over, as the drums double-back over each other in one of the most exhilarating moments of electronic music ever

The dissonant, confrontational “5 Years” is a break-up song among the greats, with the beat sounding made up of video game explosions jumping double-dutch all over themselves, surrounded by bubbling synths, sighing strings and chopped guitar squeals and industrial blips; the track is a contradiction, aiming the exploding beat straight in conflict with the joyful melody falling over itself. Björk slams her ex, emasculating him by declaring that she’s “so bored of cowards who say what they want, then they can’t handle love”, and for him to prove himself, daring him to take her on. After she puts her foot down, she turns inward on “Immature”, which spins a tone-poem out of a whirring loop of rainbow sound, piano, and perfectly arranged, clattering percussion; the percussive tones sound organic, wooden, and they mesh with what sound like croaking toads, buzzing insects and rushes of wind – or maybe a geyser of steam releasing itself from the volcanic grounds of her country – to create a slice of nature in a digital world. Over the terrain of rhythm, Björk draws everything she can out of just two lines, “How could I be so immature to think he would replace the missing elements in me? How extremely lazy of me!” Gone is the innocent longing of her past albums, and its place is left a knowing, regal confidence that she uses to grow past her stumbles.

On the poppy, club-ready super-ball “Alarm Call”, she goes one further, inspiring herself with a wake-up of reassurance, freedom, and wisdom. The song is as close as Björk gets to the exuberant, worldly Pop of her past, with a funky groove not unlike some of what Janet Jackson was doing around the time. But what’s special about this bouncy, joyous blast isn’t Björk exclaiming “You can’t say no to hope, you can’t say no to happiness”. It’s what the song, and the contrast between it and the more abstract noise of the rest of the album, illuminates in relation to the time when it was released. Beyond all the beautiful love songs, Homogenic is also the high-point of the tipping point of electronic music on the Pop landscape. After the success of Post, Queen Superstar herself, Madonna was calling – Björk answered by writing “Bedtime Story” for her – and the world started to treat Björk as a public figure/Star in addition to just a singer, illustrated by her infamous paparazzi attack or the suicidal fan that tried to send her a mailbomb. At the same time, Rave culture was breaking apart, spreading various types of dance music across the globe, and in 1997, the US music press decided it was time for the public emergence of “Electronica”, though the UK and Europe had been hip to it all for at least a few years already. And as good as it was, from The Chemical Brothers to The Prodigy’s “Firestarter”, it was impersonal because either it had no vocals or the vocals were mostly detached, cut up into hooks and choruses. Björk showed everyone that the cold electronics could have human warmth.

Also, it wasn’t like her taking equal parts of Pop and Electronica was diluting the music’s power; on the contrary, the songs on Homogenic work because her emotions are at the same excited state as the molecules of the computer grooves. It’s amazing to think Björk was originally planning on making the entire album with The RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, but he was too busy making their double album, Wu-Tang Forever, which ironically is where he lost his production mojo; the success of Björk’s work with Mark Bell is a blessing then. They didn’t skimp on production, with tracks that were at the forefront of the electronic genre; even now, Homogenic is so good that it still sounds futuristic a decade later, showing countless acts how to transition from the post-Massive Attack age of Trip-Hop into something more focused on the technology of tomorrow. It gave your average Pop Star license to believe that anything was possible, from Madonna, and her Ray Of Light, on down.

The album closes with what will probably one day be the composition that Björk, the most fascinating, enigmatic “Pop” star of the 90’s, is remembered by. “All Is Full Of Love” is a beat-less lullaby, a hymn for the new millennium, a response to Iceland’s love letter on “Bachelorette”. If a voice can be so beautiful as to materialize as the white light one sees at death, then Björk’s performance on this song is that voice, surrounded by perpetually echoing strings and a sympathetic harp. It’s the kind of song that gives you goosebumps. I wonder what it is in the human body that gives us the chills, makes our hair on our arms stand up, gives us “butterflies” when we want to talk to someone we’re attracted to. I guess someone somewhere knows the answer, and has probably put it in a book or on Wikipedia or something. It’s a secret part of me has always wanted demystified, but the part of me that wants to stay innocent and not know always wins out. It’s one of those things that is just a part of life, like love, and home. And if Homogenic represents those things, and furthermore the rejuvenation of love as facilitated by the solace of companionship and home, and resulting in greater personal strength and wisdom – the journey of life – then it is truly the genius triumph that the music makes it sound like.

01. “Hunter”
02. “Jòga”
03. “Unravel”
04. “Bachelorette”
05. “All Neon Like”
06. “5 Years”
07. “Immature”
08. “Alarm Call”
09. “Pluto”
10. “All Is Full Of Love”

I ask that you spend some time with these videos. The documentary is fascinating and in-depth. The live videos are among the best I've found throughout this project simply because Björk is a riveting vocalist. And the music videos created for these songs are among the greatest ever made, with the clip for "Jòga" plainly illustrating that the crux of the album is her love for Iceland, while the videos for "Bachelorette" and "All Is Full Of Love" are exhibitions of the height of filmmaking.

"Hunter" [single edit - video]

"Jòga" [single edit - video]

"Unravel" [live at the Riverside Church, NYC, 2001]

"All Is Full Of Love" [single version; video]

1997 documentary on Björk, including the making of Homogenic
- Part 1 of 7
on home, childhood and music
- Part 2 of 7
on Iceland's history, featuring "Unravel"
- Part 3 of 7
on Björk's evolution through Icelandic punk, The Sugarcubes, going solo
- Part 4 of 7
on her solo career, and recording Homogenic in Spain
- Part 5 of 7
on the making of Homogenic, featuring the recording of "Hunter"
- Part 6 of 7
on Iceland's influence on Homogenic, featuring the making of "5 Years"
- Part 7 of 7
on making music, featuring the recording of "Jòga"

- BONUS: "Hunter" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "Hunter" [live at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Jòga" [live on Later with Jools Holland]
- BONUS: "Jòga" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "Jòga" [live at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Unravel" [video]
- BONUS: "Unravel" [Vespertine tour rehearsal, 2001]
- BONUS: "Bachelorette" [video]
- BONUS: "Bachelorette" [live at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "All Neon Like" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "5 Years" [audio]
- BONUS: "Immature" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "Alarm Call" [single remix - video]
- BONUS: "Alarm Call" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "Pluto" [video - very NSFW!]
- BONUS: "Pluto" [live on MTV Live]
- BONUS: "Pluto" [live in Cambridge, 12.98]
- BONUS: "Pluto" [live at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "All Is Full Of Love" [live at the Riverside Church, NYC, 2001]
- BONUS: "All Is Full Of Love" [live at the Royal Opera House, London, 12.01]
- BONUS: "All Is Full Of Love" [live at the 2002 Coachella Festival]
from the Coachella documentary

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