Although a solo artist by definition, Björk’s success from album to album has always been contingent on her collaborators. The success of these collaborations – ranging from work with recurring figures like producer Howie B to left field choices like Timbaland – has been a bit of a mixed bag. For every time Björk hits one out of the park, it’s just as likely things won’t work out nearly as well on her next go around. This tendency has increased in recent years – Volta was as close to a complete disaster as an artist such as Bjork can likely reach, and her follow-up, Biophilia, even at its best, reaches nowhere near the heights of some of her previous efforts. And yet, despite her undeniably spotty track record, Björk’s artistic credibility and critical acclaim has remained relatively steadfast throughout the years. Why? The answer is 1997’s Homogenic – a work of such awe-inspiring artistic achievement it only comes around a few times each decade.
One of the most underappreciated musical movements of the 90s in terms of its quality, influence, and lasting musical legacy was the emergence of trip-hop – less a genre than an easy way of referring to a collection of albums that shared one common characteristic; electronic work that was piercingly dark in tone and often impossibly beautiful. Along with Portishead’s Dummy and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Homogenic completes a sort of holy trinity of this musical aesthetic – an aesthetic whose influence can be found in contemporary artists ranging from R&B savior The Weeknd to rave-staples such as Crystal Castles.
What these three albums destroy is the idea that electronic music can never create or inspire emotion as effectively as traditional instrumentation can. Following the lessons of Depeche Mode and New Order, utilizing digital instrumentation in a way that finally moved it out of the realm of cheese or gimmick was arguably at its apex in the 90s, and not only in the trip-hop arena. Elsewhere, artists such as Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan were also solidifying the now undeniable power and possibility that stems from giving keyboards and samplers as much stage time as stringed instruments.
But as much as a record like The Downward Spiral or a song like “Ava Adore” stand tall in the seamless blending of electronic and traditional instrumental work that ran through so much of the 90s, there’s something perhaps more precious, and more powerful, in the art of trip-hop. It’s a musical approach that sounds almost voyeuristically personal – a sound discovered in an unlit alleyway or behind the closed doors of an upstairs bedroom. And yet, what makes Homogenic unique in this category is its ability to retain this unique brand of darkness while at the same time evoking a sense of hopefulness that contradicts it.
The two masterminds of Homogenic – producer Mark Bell and Björk – are equally vital in their roles of crafting this complex musical space. Everything that represents the core of what makes their work on Homogenic so flawless – staggering beauty, haunting atmosphere, and a musical tone that manages to be as grandiose as it is intimate – is found on the album’s second track, “Joga.” Electronic work that sounds like bombs dropping in the distance is coupled with soaring strings to create a song that, production-wise, pulls the listener deep into its darkness. Björk serves to balance the proceedings – rallying against the darkness by soaring above it. Elsewhere, tracks such as the abrasive “Pluto” and the lurching “Hunter,” find Bjork and her musical backing as equal players, each working to create an atmosphere that is as threatening as it is beautiful.
And it is precisely this approach that makes the Icelandic singer’s otherworldly vocals feel more at home on Homogenic than they do on any other of her works. Whatever Mark Bell’s production work calls for – whether a counter to its darkness or an aid to its fragility, Björk finds a way to blend in seamlessly, never once demanding the greatest attention. Even on the aforementioned “Joga,” a song that features her most piercingly beautiful vocal performance ever, the strings accompanying her can just as easily be considered the star of the show. In essence, Homogenic is the work of two artists so intertwined in the world they are crafting that the absence of either of them would cause the entire thing to collapse. This is a far cry from Björk’s tendency to dominate whatever music accompanies her – a problem that is often unavoidable given her larger-than-life vocal persona.
What this all adds up to is an album that represents Björk at her most artistically tangible; a record perfectly suited to her strangeness that manages the impossible task of playing to her strengths and eliminating her weaknesses. But Homogenic goes far beyond simply being the best Björk record; like all great art, the album presents an identity so deeply layered, unique, personal, and filled with masterfully crafted contradictions it is impossible to imitate or ignore.