Like her catastrophically beautiful homeland, Björk Gudmundsdóttir is a marvel of working contradictions. She’s a boho, high-profile dance diva and a fiercely private mother who made news by sparring with a Bangkok, Thailand, camera crew trying to photograph her son; she’s a whimsical space cookie who spikes interviews with asides about polar bears and flying, fluffy teaspoons, and a tough pragmatist whose 1995 single “Army of Me” told a spineless lover to show some “self-sufficience, please/And get to work.” And though she may look fragile from the outside, her fourth solo album, Homogenic, proves again that she’s as tough and enduring as an Icelandic lava field.
Since her group, the Sugarcubes, broke up, in 1992, Björk has translated her personal paradoxes into records that pair classical music and pop standards with cutting-edge dance devices, and trilling love songs with rambunctious vocal experiments. Her first solo album, 1993’s Debut, put bop back into pop with offbeat songwriting and inviting, rave-inspired dance beats. The 1995 follow-up, Post, pushed into more creative turf and prefigured electronic music’s surge into the mainstream with its mix of looped beats and warm, huggy humanism.
The two years since have been tumultuous ones for Björk: Her personal life became fodder for British gossip pages; her remix LP, Telegram, met with mixed reviews; and she was nearly on the receiving end of a letter bomb from a demented fan. The album that came out of all this turmoil, Homogenic — the first that she’s co-produced (with Mark Bell of LFO lending support on most tracks) — is her most quixotic and personal to date. It’s also certain to be rough going for fans looking for the sweet melodies and peppy dance collages of her earlier releases. Homogenic could just as well be titled Heterogenic: Live instrumentation (much of it courtesy of the Icelandic String Octet) and computer-generated sounds seem to be juxtaposed rather than mixed, creating a mood of subtle tension in which the album’s structure appears perpetually near collapse. Björk’s voice floats across the tracks, emitting chirps and squeals like a kazoo, defiantly losing itself in a labyrinth of echoing beats and shimmering strings.
On Post, Björk seemed to be writing lyrics from the perspective of an eccentric homebody given to daydreaming; on Homogenic, she leaves home and investigates love’s bumpier back roads. Her soundtrack for the journey moves from the brash marching rhythm of “Hunter” (“If travel is searching/And home has been found/I’m not stopping/I’m going hunting”) to the melodic euphoria of “All Neon Like” and, finally, to the discordant clatter of “Immature.” Each song’s arrangement underscores its lyrics’ emotional impact: The album’s first single, “Joga,” features a bucolic string section battling with a storm of chaotic break beats, reflecting the singer’s desire to remain in an erotic “state of emergency” that she finds both delicious and dangerous. “Bachelorette,” like the on-and-off love affair it describes, extracts beauty from conflict, as guest arranger Eumir Deodato’s lush orchestration spars with Mark Bell’s mechanistic rhythm track, creating a dialectical tug of war that stubbornly evades resolution. And when the album’s signature track, “Alarm Call,” offers aphorisms both down-to-earth and transcendent (“I have walked this earth and watched people/I can be sincere and say I like them…. I’m no fucking Buddhist/But this is enlightenment”), its accompaniment does the same, bringing its jousting strings and synthesizers together momentarily in a collective blast of down ‘n’ dirty funk.
With Homogenic, Björk proves that good art, like good love, relies as much on the interplay of opposites as it does on fusion. Let other musicians blend electronica and rock into a pop purée; Björk celebrates difference and challenges listeners to explore the joys of contradiction with open ears and vivid imaginations. What’s more, she does so without the safety net of instantly hummable hooks or predictable song structures. Instead she offers ingenuity with a human touch that’s all too rare in the rock & rave ’90s. That alone makes Homogenic one of the boldest — and most exciting — albums of the year.