To celebrate this week’s release of Bjork’s Homogenic, we’re pleased to bring you the fifth and final installment of Björk Week by author Emily Mackay!
Six connections between Homogenic and Utopia.
One of the main reasons I can’t stop obsessing over Homogenic so much is that I can always find paths from Björk’s more recent work leading back to it. Medulla’s concern with national and global identity, Volta’s feminist politics, Biophilia’s unification of nature and technology… there’s always a thread back to the album that for me, really defined what Björk was and what she could be. It’s no less true of her last album, Vulnicura, and I know it will be true, too, of her forthcoming one, Utopia. In fact, I can see a few links already…
Hell (and heaven)
Utopia is Björk’s “paradise album”. To get back to Eden, though, she had to “grind the bottom” of the emotional underworld of Vulnicura, which documented the breakup of her marriage to Matthew Barney. In that, Utopia shares something with Homogenic, written after a period that Björk described as “rock bottom”. She was exhausted after a manic three years in which she’d produced and toured two albums, as well as becoming a world-famous star and devouring all the new music, people and culture that London had to offer. She was also knocked hard first by the breakup of her relationship with Goldie – with whom she’d considered marriage – and then by the shock of a disturbed fan posting a letter bomb to her before killing himself. Homogenic works through her disillusionment and anger, coming up to the optimism of ‘Alarm Call’, a tribute to the redemptive power of music, and the celestial clavichord flourishes of ‘All Is Full of Love’, which she identified with the new world that followed the world-ending battle Ragnarök in Icelandic mythology (represented by the cathartic techno-metal rage of the preceding song, ‘Pluto’).
“My healed chest wound / Transformed into a gate,” Björk sings in Utopia’s first single. The literal heartbreak that becomes a portal to love in ‘The Gate’ was central to the imagery of Vulnicura – whose title means “a cure for wounds”. Her wound – deep, raw, vaginal in shape – is exposed on the album’s sleeve and in the video for ‘Family Tree’ and Black Lake. The latter in particular echoes the imagery of the video for Homogenic’s first single ‘Jóga’, also shot in the Icelandic wilderness. In ‘Jóga’, as the song hits its climax, Björk pulls her ribcage apart exposing a rocky cave, into which the camera flies, to find a rocky island similar in shape to Elliðaey, one of the Westman islands off Iceland’s south-west coast. In ‘Black Lake’, shot inside a lava tube, Icelandic moss grows around Björk’s open wound, which seeps a blue lava that also erupts from the surrounding landscape.
Light, in waves and particles
‘All Neon Like’ was one of the first lyrics Björk came up with for Homogenic, originally in the form of a poem called ‘Techno Prayer’ published in Details magazine. In it, and in the finished song, Björk describes a dreamlike world in which comfort and healing come in the form of “glow in the dark threads” , “luminous” and “all neon-like”. Both threads and light pop up throughout her work as metaphors for healing and connection: in ‘Unravel’, ‘Cocoon’, ‘Heirloom’, ‘Hollow’, ‘Quicksand’, and most strongly in Vulnicura. ‘All Neon Like’ reappeared in her setlists for the Vulnicura tours, and living threads sew up her chest wound in the ‘Family Tree’ video. In ‘The Gate’, light is again key, but rather than travelling in steady waves or threads, it’s broken into particles, passed vulnerably between lovers, and fractured into a spectrum until focused by love: “Split into many parts/ Splattered light beams into prisms / That will reunite”. The slight shift in imagery seems to reflect a more experienced, fragile view of love.
Flutes (and strings)
Homogenic was the first album where Björk felt she was really returning to the 10 years of classical training she received at Reykjavík’s Barnamusikskoli, having “stormed out of it at the age of 15 as an angry punk who thinks Beethoven sucks”. She formed the Icelandic String Octet who played the album’s rich string parts from musicians who’d trained at the same school. Her own specialisation at Barnamusikskoli, however, was flute; the same instrument we see her playing in the opening scenes of ‘The Gate’. There’s also a 12-piece female flute section on Utopia, who Björk has been rehearsing for a year: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b094p7jy
This one’s sort of cheating, as working with designers has been a constant in Björk’s visual work. But both Homogenic and ‘The Gate’ – and, perhaps, Utopia itself – mark the beginning of a collaboration with a new designer. For Homogenic, it was with then up-and-comer Alexander McQueen, who designed the album’s sleeve, shot by photographer Nick Knight. McQueen went on to direct the video for ‘Alarm Call’, Homogenic’s fourth single, and to design dresses for her including the pearl-and-nipple-ring number from the video for Vespertine’s Pagan Poetry and the “bell dress” featured in ‘Who Is It?’ from Medúlla (all auctioned last year to raise funds for Björk’s virtual reality explorations). Now, it’s the turn of Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, who was co-creative director of ‘The Gate’’s video, along with Björk’s longterm right-hand man James Merry. The dress he designed for ‘The Gate’ was made of eight metres of iridescent PVC and 20 metres of lurex organza, and took a total of 870 hours to make.
Nature, technology and ecology
Talking to Nowness about the title of Utopia, Björk said, “I kind of like the fact that it’s a cliche, that word, and I like the fact that it has a fascistic, weird, like, ‘I want the world to be like this!’ feeling about it, because it’s a proposal (of) how we can live with nature and technology in the most optimistic way possible.” Biophilia, of course, was also about unifying nature and technology. “Sound, harnessed by human beings, delivered with generosity and emotion, is what we call, music. and just as we use music to express parts of us, that would otherwise be hidden, so too can we use technology, to make visible, much of nature’s invisible world,” said David Attenborough on its introduction, written by Björk and Sjón. But this preoccupation with trying to unite her love of nature with her love of new musical technologies began on Homogenic, where modern beats mimic the sounds of nature, and wooden instruments mix with metal. Reuniting seeming opposites was something that had been on Björk’s mind since she had first come across resistance to her taste for electronic music after the release of Post and its remix album Telegram, and on Homogenic she made it her mission to collapse the false binary between the two. “Sometimes I think nature and techno is the same word, it just depends on if its past or future,” she told Evelyn McDonnell 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.”