In the Nineties my father liked Björk so much that one day my brother and I sellotaped a photo of her on his back. He managed a whole trip to the dentist before he realised it was there. Despite our mockery, we rather liked having a dad with cooler music taste than us. Had Dad been asked why he liked Björk, he would have said with characteristic economy that she sounded like no one else. This is still the case. Björk is one of the holy trinity of musicians, along with Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, to whom any half-decent new female singer-songwriter gets compared – yet there has never been anyone like her. Still, she can be heard everywhere. Her third album Homogenic was released 25 years ago; if it sounds like it was made yesterday, it’s only because people are still programming records like this a quarter of a century later.
Released on 20 September 1997, Homogenic is the album on which the whole concept of Björk was brought into focus. “It’s very much grabbing the collar of people’s jumpers,” she told Mojo at the time, “then telling them, look in my eye, this is what I have to say, thank you very much, now see you later.”
Björk had a terrible 1996. An obsessive fan in the US, inflamed over her relationship with the British jungle producer Goldie, tried to murder her by sending her an acid bomb in the post; he then killed himself on camera at the end of a 22-hour video diary. Björk sent flowers to his family. She retreated to Spain to write her album and when it was released, said she wanted less attention this time round, not more.
Homogenic had a greater homogeneity of sound (hence the title) than its adventurous, jazzy, eclectic predecessors – and it had a point. It said: I am not an Icelandic elf. I am a warrior woman – an emotional warrior, she later explained, who confronts people with feeling, and disarms them with love. On the cover image – styled by Alexander McQueen, with ten kilos of hair piled on her head, nails so long she could not eat and a face as impassive as a robot geisha – Björk presented herself as a woman struggling in an “impossible situation”, armed only with the weapon of her feelings.
[See also: Sheku Kanneh-Mason: “The cello is a part of you”]
She joked that she left Iceland around the time of her debut album in 1993 because her life was too easy there – lots of good music and good books and getting plastered; she craved something with more danger. But by 1997, she wanted to create a sonic picture of her homeland. She achieved this with an original concoction of two things: romantic strings, and beats as big as volcanoes. She cooked up the beats with her producer Mark Bell, whom she said had as big an influence on her as Stockhausen: he died at just 43, in 2014, from complications after an operation. Together they created a database of beats, around a hundred of them, with Bell responding to instructions from Björk such as, “I need more oxygen” and, “Give me another silent explosion.” The organic-electronic texture they pioneered can be heard everywhere now – from dubstep to Billie Eilish to Kanye West, and throughout that whole thing they called folktronica. As her work progressed she blended her classical and electronic impulses in increasingly complex ways, but on Homogenic it only sounded stark and clean: simple, but radical too.
“Jóga” was written for Björk’s best friend, Jóga Johannsdóttir, the wife of Jón Gnarr, the Icelandic comedian who became mayor of Reykjavík after his Best Party ran for election as a joke. So many pop songs about friendship feel passive – sentiments about “being there for you” – but “Jóga”, Björk once said, was the fiercest love song she had ever written. Its heartbeat drums and vertiginous vocal embody one vast “emotional landscape” that emerges between two women: “And you push me up to this/State of emergency/How beautiful to be.” The other big number on Homogenic is “Bachelorette” (“I’m a fountain of blood/In the shape of a girl”), which rollicks by on timpani, alpine horns and string flourishes that sound like the brush of a giant hand against a giant harp. In a sense it sounds more familiar now than it did then, because in 1997 few people were writing music with the flavour of John Barry’s James Bond scores; soon, everyone was.
Björk was working in an era of confessional female songwriters who put rage at the centre of their music, but she was opening herself up neither over the keys of a piano nor through the amplifier of rock. She moved in an entirely different space, where emotion was allowed to unfurl, intimate and unadorned, in long, surprising lines of easy poetry. In “Unravel”, love becomes a “ball of yarn” unwound by the devil: “When you come back/We’ll have to make new love.” In “5 years”, which is rumoured to have been about her other Nineties-producer-boyfriend Tricky, she roars: “I’m so bored with cowards/That say they want/Then they can’t handle/You can’t handle love.” Björk sang with the freshness and oddness of a new translation, where universal feelings appeared in a more penetrating light.
[See also: When Joni Mitchell surprised the world]
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession