Bryson Edward Howe
A Techno Prayer: Björk’s Homogenic
With the release of her newest album Fossora, we look back at Björk's revolutionary, rimy album Homogenic on its 25th anniversary, and how to unfold love into an icy future with a militant passion.
There’s a chill outside now. It’s the type of chill that marks the end of summer, where your body braces, where leaves fall like summer’s ashes, flowers curl up to die, and each moonless night ushers in drearier days. It’s a slow, dull fade into winter, one that always makes me want to be enwombed while I listen to the heartbeat of fruitfall on my roof. I close my eyes and dream of the ever-blooming Eden-trees of spring, of its rebirth, and its glowing red sun. I crave spring’s sharpness and desire its warmth. Until then, I have found a remedy: Björk’s Homogenic, a perfect album with lyrics and vocals to melt you, and rootsiness to aide your reawakening.
Björk’s uterine soundscapes and hymnic prose have soundtracked many formative moments of my life: mycelial acid-flushed memories of freefalling, crashing violently only to land safely in the bosom of Björk’s glowing, bodiless worlds, particularly Debut and Post, her virginal first two solo albums. Soaked in the vibrant shades of 1990s London club culture they’re musically promiscuous, indicative of Björk’s omnivorous burgeoning taste: an eruption of house, jazz, pop, and classical music, bursts of euphoric energy mined from the young artist in the process of discovery, like opal just chiselled from a chamber of grey rock, rough yet still glistening with potential. Homogenic, however, seemed to linger not with the memories I attached to it but as something that grew with me, and I with it: something integral to my very atoms rather than the score of my own nostalgia. It seems, with each listen, to be unfixed: organic and growing, shifting, always new.
All that sparkled,
All that glowed…
Debut and Post’s nervous energy gives way to Homogenic’s percussive opening track, “Hunter”, its drums thundering forward like an unstoppable premonition of war. There is an immediate irony, Björk’s riddles, struggles, and contradictions rolling and incessant as her drums, creating an album about her ‘home’ in Iceland—a country without an army. The line “I thought I could organise freedom/How Scandinavian of me” declares Björk’s feeling of displacement at the time; losing the anarchic Icelandic sense of wild freedom amidst the pressures of the music industry (wanting to take a break from music she felt a pressure to keep recording in order to pay the team around her) in a way sparks this album as Björk at her most free, trying desperately to pry herself loose from the trappings, it’s a musical overcompensation, a rising up of the warrior’s heart within. No album has so instantly rushed tears to my eyes, a lucent imparadise to Post’s abrasive club-inspired and -infused sensationalism; this is a folktale, where Björk’s snake-skin identity blurs between princess, warrior, alien, and angel.
It’s in these binaries that Björk constantly finds herself torn between: wild and sensitive, bold, and fragile, nature and urban, mountains and nightclubs, ancient and futuristic, elegant and severe. To her, it’s symmetry, or inherent, and immediately built into her ingenious system of sound construction: “Sometimes I think nature and techno is the same word, it just depends on if it’s past or future,” she said in a 1997 interview, “one thousand years ago you’d look at a log cabin in the forest, and that would be techno. And now it’s nature.” Electricity has always been in thunder and lightning; ancient—the stuff of nerve impulses and bioluminescence, now rumbling under “Hunter”, the aural equivalent of the seismic movement of the earth. A quiet chaos. She sings, appropriately, “You just don't know me.” We didn’t. But we were about to find out.
On the album’s cover, Björk stares out at us decorated in shimmering silver satin, an Alexander McQueen-designed kimono, her marble-black eyes piercing the luminant frosted surface, face fixed into the stoic post-mortem rictus of Cleopatra and co. drawing from a fountain of non-traditional ideas of beauty and power, drawing away from Western culture, drawing away from her new ‘home’. Björk, this delicate flower that we came to know from the cute, pink early albums, now stands like a volcano moments away from erupting, teeming with the tension of a still, dewy sky marred by the calm before a storm. Björk approached McQueen to design her a costume for the sleeve that would make her appear as “someone who is put into an impossible situation, so impossible that she has to become a warrior; a warrior who has to fight not with weapons, but with love,” a description McQueen – known mostly for his designs that were also labelled with binaries; lost somewhere in the swamp of shock and awe, the exotic and untamed, wonder and terror, savagery and beauty – took and beat like a drum: Björk stood as we had never seen her before, rendered in colours of ice and obsidian.
If “Hunter” is the warning, the soldiers coming over the hill, then “Jóga” is the charge. Dedicated to Björk’s best friend, this is the song that if you’re not into, turn the album off. I remember my first listen. I’d never heard anything like this before. Björk’s cavernous cry of “emotional landscapes” comes at a point in the track where her raw vocals cut through the cosmic orchestra of deep strings, able to leap from a whisper to a howl (with breaths as loud as singing, singing as quiet as breath) as if her tiny voice can expand to fill the space or as if competing with nature: quiet when the wind is still, her voice flexing a second later as a blizzard tears through a vocal topography of glacial immensity. She’s now got the entire galaxy standing behind her ready to take on the universe, in all its ever-winding, dot-to-dot streaming synchronicities and endless geysers of love-sick pedestrians.
Suffering from the accumulated comedown of the first few years of solo success and emotional voyeurism following a couple of ruinous relationships, the televised assault of a reporter, and the broadcasted suicide of a stalker, her music’s unshakeable honesty seemed to reach further into the public consciousness than she thought: wandering the streets of London’s six-million-strong city, stuck in this post-Post state of homesickness, with liquid citizenship, Björk finally realised that she had come to the UK and to dance music as an outsider, into a country now enveloped in the last-ditch-effort of the flag-waving Brit-Pop bucket-hat-brigade, heading back to Europe to write and record what would become Homogenic. She has said that she went into the recording process with the idea of focusing on her craft—her first attempt to create a record with “one flavour”, to make it sonically more homogeneous: “Me in one state of mind. One period of obsessions. That’s why I called it Homogenic.” With all that happened following Post, Björk could have escaped, she could have quit, but instead of retreating she breathed it all in. Sat with it. Nerves raw and teeming with alienation, she donned her new armour and got to work.
Joined by her own echo, a ghostly harmony with her own voice offers an aching cubist collage, a fracturing of the self, a surreal, spectral vision of detachment; “Unravel” is one of the more skeletal songs on the album, her strict, sparse lyrics treated and repeated in a tender, haiku-like way over impressionist swells of sound. Thom Yorke declared “Unravel” his favourite song of all time (even covering it in a dense live-streamed rendition), which begins to bridge Homogenic’s influence on the wider world of music (not to mention the thematic connection of Radiohead and Kid A’s anxiety and alienation making maybe the most perfect side-dish to this album), seeping its silvery tendrils into the sounds of our times: in hip-hop, we hear it in the membrane of Frank Ocean, Blood Orange, and Solange’s spherical layers, and further into the modern fugues of Caroline Polachek, Arca (Björk is a fountain of hyperpop in the shape of a grandma), and Bon Iver—“Unravel” is a stricken theory of love; a guide to move through disorientating times. In its driving, swooping strings and scrunchy, crunching electronic beats, this is a pearl of quiet wisdom peeking over a restless sonic vista.
Where the first three songs have been the Ocean swell, “Bachelorette” crashes over you. At her most operatic, Björk, her voice too earthy, eases gracefully into the song, singing lyrics wrung free from a coral catch of tightly coiled magma, her phantom vocals soar over violent, choppy tones. Like the “fountain of blood,” she is barely containable, where the cycle of menstruation, childbirth, sacrifice, death, and self-effacement threaten to bubble over, threaten to break loose from her own prescribed limitations. She maybe goes beyond reality here, into a world where dreams and desire coexist, into one that can’t possibly contain her intense feeling: if life and love are a dream, where two lovers simultaneously dream each other, where expectations and reality can live in harmony – why would you go back? Her voice is pulverizing, overflowing with primordial sexuality and energy. She drags her voice until you can almost hear her choking up – feeding into the next track, a kind of prayer, “All Neon Like”, where emotion takes precedence over lyrics – words breaking down into luminous screams, collapsing under their own weight. Her voice, stalactital, struggling to hang on and not crack under the pressure of pure emotion. Finally, the idiosyncratic becomes mechanical. A shimmering, twinkling, crackling voice, fizzing like neon, more of a chemical reaction than a vibration – more machine than human, her voice becoming indistinguishable from the instruments – Björk becoming the Mediator Between Head and Hands:
“If you forget my name/You will go astray/Like a killer whale/Trapped in a bay”
“The need to go astray, to be destroyed, is an extremely private, distant, passionate, turbulent truth... I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.” ― Georges Bataille
“5 Years” marks the beginning of the B-Side of the album, the instrumental mutating into something much closer to Björk’s shiny, liquid textures and tear-choked, schizophrenic delivery. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” A typical date-night question. Where were you five years ago? What type of person were you? Are you still that person now? Intentions, interpretations, and reality often don’t coexist—this dreamstate Björk has conjured is falling down, just as sounds deteriorate as quickly as they build up, corroding. She has to build her new reality. Live in it. Accept it. Grow up. This immaturity of Björk’s past dissipates in this new reality. Her co-dependence and need for a ‘second half’ to feel complete are shattered. In “Immature”, she has finally blossomed (like the frost-flowers on her dress), emerged as a blood-Orchid from the garden of Edenic innocence that was Post and Debut, and into a world where only feeling can offer truth.
And this leads to the album’s final three-song stretch; “Alarm Call” is the most poppy, grandiose track on the album – an outlier in many ways – but settles us after the jagged, stressed-syllables and dagger-like lyrics of the previous two tracks: the track’s anatomy, however, reveals the left turn of Björk’s transcendental balladry, folded in cells of chrystal silence; trying to kill desire is a modern sport, and “Alarm Call” rings the bell of burning loins, run, run, run, while its reverberations take up residence in Abstractia. You are listening calmly until “Pluto” starts – “Pluto”; a bullet in my stomach and head when I hear her scream in “Pluto”. “Pluto”; I haven’t been the same since. “Pluto”; you will always have my heart. “Excuse me/But I just have to/Explode/Explode this body off me.” Reaching your weakest inner peaks, Björk’s voice outstrips the need for words anymore, disintegrating into twitching, wordless howls over beatless, buzzing clouds of synthesizer and crunching, buckling curls of strings when voice and music become inseparable and Björk’s resounding ethos becomes crystalline clear: ecstasy, oneness, the infinite possibility of connectedness. It is a slick, sizzling cry out into the ether and it splits you open, cannibalistically devouring anything that’s not truly you—a full rebirth.
And a new stasis is reached. “All is Full of Love” is a siren call of a song, a robotic reckoning with decay, and a fanfare to her renewed rush to live life to its fullest, to the recaptured sense of the Sublime; a molten eulogy, as her wispy vocals curl around the sharp, computerised composition, the track rises and falls like a chorus exhaling in unison. Much more sedate and airy than the previous track, it feels like one long breath. It’s a fitting finale because Homogenic is an album that thaws. The celestial clavichord flourishes of its climax feel like the wind-chimes of a new world, where Björk has ‘earned’ way back up. Darkness is not as much consuming as it is cleansing.
This isn't Eve tempted into eating the apple. This is Eve cutting the whole damn tree down in defiance of the world. This is Eden set ablaze. This is Björk born again.
“In what will survive me
I am in harmony
with my annihilation.”
― Georges Bataille