To celebrate this week’s release of Björk’s Homogenic, we’re pleased to bring you the first installment of Björk Week by author Emily Mackay!
The same year I began writing this book, I finally took my old stereo back from my parents’ house. I’d got the system, a 5-CD changer with two cassette decks and a turntable, in 1997, the year Björk’s album Homogenic was released. I was 16.
I can remember how it was when I first played Homogenic on that stereo, the great dizzying swoop and a fillip in the guts like liftoff induced by the opening bars of Hunter and the strings of Jóga. I remember lying on the floor, in the dark. I remember the flickering lights of the stereo, which had a glitzy display that, as well as a graphic equaliser, could flash up a “game” similar to an especially enigmatic fruit machine, in time to the music. Different controls allowed you to boost the bass, and reconfigure the sound profile to different presets: live, club, hall. Compared to Björk’s previous releases, 1993’s Debut and 1995’s Post, Homogenic seemed more “hall” than “club”, so I settled for that – good reverb – whacked the bass way up and sank deep in for the duration, only rising back to the world with the warm, wavering textures of the final track, ‘All Is Full of Love’, feeling bewildered and beatific, as if hypnotised.
That stereo carried many such memories, traces of hormone-assisted musical rushes inked into its cassette heads and CD lens. I treasured it, and I looked forward to having enough space in my twentysomething, then thirtysomething, London flats to reclaim the silver behemoth.
But when I finally got it back… well, it looked shit. The design that had seemed so curvily modern was much obviously closer to the boxy, bulky style of the 80s ghettoblaster than I’d remembered. It was embarrassingly huge, lumbering and outdated, like an ancient mainframe computer. The bass seemed artificially jacked up, rather than rich. The flashing lights were so irritating I had to unplug it at the mains to get to sleep.
Homogenic, though… that still sounds as raw, as dangerously magical, as it did then. I’ve never stopped listening to it, as I have done with other albums from my teens that I know so well I can replay them note for note in my brain. I could do that with Homogenic, too, but I still want to put it on again, to dive in deeper. And despite having to listen to it in new ways for this book – over and over, in looped snatches, closer than ever before, wrestling to step outside myself and come to it completely afresh – I am still listening to it. People ask all the time if I’m sick of it now. I’m not.
I think the reason for that is the same reason that Homogenic meant so much to me in 1997: because it’s an album of self-creation. You’re occupied with little else – well, apart from GCSEs – when you’re 16. But in our later lives, we never stop creating and recreating ourselves; even when you feel stuck in a rut, there’s something bubbling below. That ongoing inner metamorphosis is played out in all of Björk’s musical career, with its shifting forms, its many visual guises, and it began in earnest on Homogenic, a record which set her free to keep recreating herself, without limit. Its harsher, colder, loftier sound palette, defiantly modern yet beautifully in tune with nature and her country’s past, shook off sexist, xenophobically patronising press caricatures of her as a ditzy pixie. At the same time, it presented a new idea of what could, and should, be expected of pop music – a genre which, despite her art-punk background and classical training, she enthusiastically adopted, but firmly on her own terms.
Visually, Homogenic united the themes of Björk’s sleeve artwork, videos, stage costumes and live sets with her music more than ever before, and like that music, showed a harder, colder side. Made in the wake of a fan’s suicide and attempt on her life, the album set a clearer distance between Björk the artist and Björk the person, stepping back from the mainstream pop personality she’d become since the exuberant Debut and in particular, the huge hit that was ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’. Her new persona adopted a markedly different stance to Debut, which had thrilled at life and love, daring people to jump off roofs, marvelling at a passion too big to handle, or Post, which had hymned the thrumming thrill of the city and addictive relationships. Homogenic revelled in anger, disappointment and solitude, coming only with violent struggle through to bliss. Every time I listen, I go through that transformation once more, born again in ‘Pluto’’s noisy rage, resolving to try harder in the face of ‘All Is Full of Love’’s wise, ambient patience.
Now, 20 years on, the Homogenic sound – beats shaped by hip-hop and underground dance music, strings, space, that voice – is as relevant as ever, in the midst of a wave of high-drama, low-bpm dance music and alternative R&B. Even if it were out of musical fashion, its self-reinvention, enacted in its songs and visible on its sleeve, would always be current. And without it, we wouldn’t have the Björk we have today: ever-inventive, embracing new sounds and new artists, shape-shifting her image with playful, body-altering fashion, pushing into new territories and new technologies with her Björk Digital exhibition and her virtual reality videos, never lured by the past like so many of my former favourites with their album anniversary tours.
A while ago, I put my old stereo out by the bins, and these days I’m listening to Homogenic and Utopia on a tiny computer that responds to my voice commands, playing me music or reading me books, like a little house spirit. I bet Björk has one in every room.
Björk’s Homogenic by Emily Mackay publishes on Thursday, 5 October 2017. Find out more and order your copy today!