Björk has always been a forward-moving artist, but her music can’t—and shouldn’t—be mapped linearly (to say nothing of the futility of quantifying her success in sales). After releasing an album in 2004 consisting solely of vocals, throat singing, and beatboxing, and without anything even closely resembling an actual single, she had nowhere to go but backward. It’s what makes her new album, Volta, both a welcomed return to form and a disappointment at the same time. Björk needlessly hiring Timbaland, whose beats aren’t any better than her own, for Volta is like Mariah Carey hiring Kelly Clarkson to sing backup. Besides, Björk already met her match almost exactly 10 years ago in U.K. techno outfit LFO’s Mark Bell, who co-produced most of the Icelandic artist’s third solo album, 1997’s Homogenic—an album that proves that Björk’s musical evolution is best measured vertically.
Björk’s sophomore effort, 1995’s Post, is the kind of record that would have made any other artist crumble under the pressure to top or even match its excellence. It could have induced a paralyzing burden of self-doubt so heavy that even following up with a weepy, poorly-sung Unplugged record would have proved an arduous task. But Björk rose to the challenge—though it’s doubtful she even viewed it as such—and reached her creative zenith with Homogenic, her most “vertical” album to date. The album soars to all kinds of dizzying heights: its consistently glacial clime conjures the summit of some icy, alien mountain; sonically, its songs gradually climb to euphoric climaxes and reach emotional, elated peaks. After Homogenic, there was nowhere for Björk to go but down.
With Homogenic, Björk expressed and dissected her disharmony with the physical world by diving headlong into the metaphysical, and by doing so she took the groundbreaking sonics of the electronic maestros before her—808 State, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and Stockhausen, whose influence can be heard on Post’s “Headphones”—and gave it living, breathing humanity. Like a floating cell, the listener travels through the body of the album (even its title and blood vessel-like artwork evoke cellular biology); “Jóga” is adrenaline, summoned by the lovelorn “state of emergency” conjured by the singer’s homeland, and she likens her body to a fountain of blood from which her lover drinks on the dramatic “Bachelorette” (both songs were co-written by Sjon).
Homogenic is striking in its juxtaposition of organic instruments (strings, accordion, harp, pipe organ) and synthetic elements. This battle between classical and electronic, analog and digital, is no more apparent than on “5 Years”: halfway through the song, the Icelandic String Octet’s arrangement briefly emerges from beneath the sedimentary surface of the track’s Earth-crust-like drum programming, only to engage in a fierce sonic melee that parallels Björk’s romantic conflict. If she didn’t actually invent new melodies, harmonies and chord progressions on Homogenic, it certainly sounds like she did. Bell’s stiff, rattling electronic beats just barely prop up Björk’s ambitious compositions, and there’s always a sense that the thing could come crashing down under the weight of an orchestra and the singer’s frenzied exclamations.
The fact that English is a second language for Björk has always allowed for a unique approach to words and phrases, and on Homogenic her lyrics are arguably her most incisive and astute to date. The staggering momentum of one simple, universal truth (“How could I be so immature/To think that he could replace/The missing elements in me?/How extremely lazy of me!”) is enough to carry the entirety of “Immature,” which aptly follows “5 Years,” while “Alarm Call,” the album’s poppiest, most accessible tune (it would have fit just as easily, if not more so, on Debut or Post), finds Björk poking fun at her own idyllic disposition (“I thought I could organize freedom/How Scandanavian of me!” she sings on the opening track, “Hunter”) by pragmatically giving new age mores a distinctly modern context: “I’m no fucking Buddhist but this is enlightenment/The less room you give me, the more space I’ve got.”
Things eventually do collapse—or, rather, explode—as Björk’s crisis culminates with “Pluto,” an aggressive techno number in which her primal shrieks mark literal and figurative death. Never has the impetus to suicide been captured more thoughtfully or beautifully, at least in song. It’s followed by the sublime rebirth of “All Is Full of Love,” the album’s final track, which begins with the soft pulse of what sounds like a heartbeat in utero as simple intervals build to a breathtaking, electronic orchestration of industrial beats that flutter like the wings of locusts. A fanciful interpretation, for sure, but this is an album that includes a song in which a pipe organ laments the death of a love that is continually spun into a ball of yarn and then stolen by the devil, and another in which Björk seeks out aliens, gods or maybe ancient ancestors to help assist her in…advanced laser-surgery techniques?
Homogenic is gorgeous and evocative all the same. It’s a rare feat in that it’s as visceral and physical an experience as it is intellectual and emotional, and its lyrics and music are as accomplished as its production is forward thinking. If not the greatest electronic album of all time, it’s certainly the greatest of its decade.