Read an extract from Emily Mackay’s new 33⅓ book, which revisits the Icelandic musician’s third album 20 years after its release
Emily Mackay’s new book for 33⅓ series examines Björk’s third album, Homogenic. Recorded in Spain while escaping media attention brought on after an obsessive fan mailed her a letter bomb before committing suicide, Homogenic was a turning point in Björk’s career, asserting her independence with its darker tone and unique mixture of electronic beats, precise songwriting, string arrangements, and noise. This edited extract is taken from a chapter exploring the Icelandic musician’s relationship with electronic music, nature, and technology, a recurring theme throughout her work.
Homogenic was a shock to those expecting more along the lines of “It’s Oh So Quiet”. The rugged, distorted beats that crunch into the orchestral grandeur of “Bachelorette” or “Jóga”, not to mention “Pluto”s riotous climax of furiously cycling noise, served notice that, sonically, Björk wasn’t going to play pretty any more. From her point of view, though, it was a natural progression: her second album Post had revelled in harder, bigger sounds than Debut, and she’d wanted Homogenic to go even further, to feature “massive beats, really filthy”.
That fascination with beats was longstanding. From her days as the drummer in her teen punk band Spit and Snot, she’d always been drawn to strongly rhythmic music, including hip hop. “From 86 to 88, if I couldn’t get to hear Public Enemy every day, I’d go sick,” she declared. “They’re so creative and brave and misunderstood ... They take what they are living with every day and make a song out of it.” And when thinking about how to get the volcanic sonic power she wanted for Homogenic, Björk had thought first of RZA, who, although his work with Björk didn’t make it on to the album, enthused about the Wu-Tang Clan’s rapport with her: “It’s like we from the same motherfuckin’ cusp. She’s unorthodox.” The rock-solidity of Homogenic’s beats and its shiny, liquid synths make it an Icelandic relation of the sheeny, futuristic 90s hip hop of the Wu-Tang, Missy Elliott and Timbaland; Elliott actually sampled “Jóga” on the single version of “Hit Em Wit Da Hee” in 1998.
“Finding the magic that would make Björk’s powerful voice, the vivid strings, and the distorted, manipulated beats hang together was a considerable production challenge, and Homogenic’s success in doing so is one of the reasons for its lasting influence”
If hip hop was a key influence in Björk’s career, her other great beat inspiration was electronic dance music. She could pinpoint the exact moment of her epiphany. “It was Mixmaster Morris, and it must’ve been like, 1989, in this really dodgy party somewhere in suburban London where the sweat is dripping from the ceiling... it was so alive and so creative, having the courage to face the reality you live in and making it pretty… making you love today.” It’s notable, here, that Björk enthuses about Morris using the same language she used to describe Public Enemy, praising the way that both reflected the sounds of the world around them in their music, capturing and reframing current reality.
For Björk, the artists who were doing the same in the mid-90s included Black Dog Productions and their later outfit Plaid, as well as Beaumont Hannant, Autechre, Aphex Twin and the rest of the Warp Records stable. These were the sort of names and sounds that would crop up in Björk’s remixes, if not, at first, in her own albums, with Mark Bell’s outfit LFO being a particular favourite. “The work Mark did when he was 19 proved to our generation that pop music is what we understand,” Björk said. “We walk around with all these telephones and car alarms, and we hear all these noises. We can keep saying, ‘No, it’s soulless, it’s cold,’ but it’s part of our lives.”
Post’s remix album Telegram moved further towards these tastes with its jungle, techno and hip hop reworkings; Björk described it as “not trying to make it pretty or peaceable for the ear. Just like a record I would buy myself”. As she worked on Homogenic, the press reviews for Telegram – often baffled and certainly more lukewarm than those for her first two albums – were coming in. ‘‘I’m just trying to be truthful about what 1997 is,” a frustrated Björk said. “I’m talking about all the noises that most people call ugly, in some instances because they’re too familiar. I’ve tried to reorganise them and put a bit of magic there.”
Finding the magic that would make Björk’s powerful voice, the vivid strings, and the distorted, manipulated beats hang together was a considerable production challenge, and Homogenic’s success in doing so is one of the reasons for its lasting influence. “With younger artists, I’ve had so many demos where it’s still the mental image of that record that they want to do. As soon as I hear a distorted drumbeat, I think, ‘OK, Björk, third album, here we go …’” says Guy Sigsworth, one of Homogenic’s co-producers. “It’s easier to do it now than it was then, because one of the big technical problems you have is that when you distort drums a lot… they just become a brick of noise. Aphex Twin can mix the snare drum like it’s a lead vocal, (but on Homogenic) you kind of have to find a way to make both live together. And that’s the challenge of it, and that’s why it’s different.”
“Homogenic’s unification of strings and beats, the acoustic and the electronic, attempted to reunite nature and technology through pop music by demonstrating the continuity between the man-made and the organic”
The harmony that Homogenic’s core elements of beats, strings and voice achieve with each other is not just technically hard-won, but audibly ongoing in the songs, which enact a process of reconciliation, a conversation between seeming opposites ending in resolution that musicologist Nicola Dibben identifies as a recurring pattern in Björk’s music.
One level deeper, Homogenic’s unification of strings and beats, the acoustic and the electronic, attempted to reunite nature and technology through pop music by demonstrating the continuity between the man-made and the organic. “Sometimes I think nature and techno is the same word, it just depends on if it’s past or future,” Björk said in 1997. “One thousand years ago you’d look at a log cabin in the forest, and that would be techno. And now it’s nature.”
Homogenic’s lushly singable pop songs – with heavy beats, rampant noise and electronics woven into their core – were the musical diagrams that would point the way for technophobes and demonstrate the continuum between violin and synth. People had always feared new technologies, Björk the techno-evangelist reasoned; the worry that our tools might overpower us, as in Post’s technophobe fable “The Modern Things”, is a common reaction. “When man found fire, he was scared and he said, ‘Oh we’re all going to die’,” she said. “But then he learned to cook with it… humanity will always win, I think. Don’t be scared.”
Homogenic by Emily Mackay is out now