One of the coolest things music can do is create aural "environments," ones that you feel as if you could enter despite being non-existent in reality. After all, in instances of escapism, isn't the point to escape from the real world for a while? The same goes for movies and video games; depending on the genre, creating a well-defined world for characters to interact is usually one of the most important assets of either medium. So, reader, imagine this if you will: imagine a world of isolation. Think of a cold environment that prefers darkness, but doesn't completely rule out light; the voice that hangs overhead simultaneously soars and whispers as the intensity of each location changes accordingly. You have just entered the world of Homogenic by Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork.
Homogenic was recorded during a period of reinvention for Ms. Guomundsdottir, both in musical style and image. Her first two solo albums after leaving The Sugarcubes (not counting her 1977 album, as it's labeled as juvenilia) proved to be successful commercially and critically, allowing her to build a strong fanbase from the get-go. Unfortunately, while working on her third effort back in her home in Britain, the infamous "Bjork stalker" Ricardo Lopez attempted to assassinate her with a mail bomb and then proceeded to kill himself. Overwhelmed with Lopez's death and the subsequent media coverage about the incident, Bjork moved to Malaga, Spain to have some privacy during the recording of Homogenic and relieve her stress. Homogenic is no doubt a dark reflection of these events, from the decidedly stoic-looking album cover to the isolation and coldness found in the songs. Along with that, it is also perhaps her finest and most mature effort to date.
In contrast to her previous two albums, which presented a very large array of different sounds and styles, Homogenic takes the theme of reclusiveness and lets it run through the entire experience. The bouncier atmosphere has now been replaced with something slower, more challenging, and definitely more reflective; the beats are more trip-hop-influenced, and the instrumentation puts a larger emphasis on string arrangements than before. In fact, it wouldn't be farfetched to say that this album integrates a pretty large amount of baroque pop into its sound. Luckily, just like with her past efforts, the songwriting variety is still present in spades; no song sounds alike despite sharing the same emotional weight, and the instrumentation always reflects what lyricism or atmosphere is being represented. There's still a fair share of more upbeat numbers tempo-wise, such as the aggressive and distorted "dance" (using that a bit loosely) number "Pluto" or the classically-influenced "Bachelorette," but even they don't escape the chilly isolation experienced with each song on the album. Remember how I mentioned musical "environments" earlier? They apply to this album in the best possible way. As dark and intense as the atmosphere of this album is, the way Bjork's voice, the combination of synthesizers/samples/strings, and of course the dark lyrical content combine, makes it really intriguing to listen to nonetheless. "Joga"'s probably the best example of this, with the string section being used to the greatest effect; an intro of lush (yet still depressing and dark) orchestration sets the tone for Bjork's powerful soaring voice to reach its climax during the prechorus and chorus, creating both a chilling and exciting experience. "All is Full of Love" opts to drop the beats out altogether, just creating an intimacy between the growing dynamics of the instrumentation and Bjork's impressive vocal abilities.
Speaking of which, "All is Full of Love" is perfectly placed at the end of the album, representing a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Admittedly, the music can sometimes be pretty fun to listen to as well, despite contrasting with bleak lyrical content. "5 Years" is almost frustratingly catchy, between a repetitive descending succession of synthesizer chords during the verses and the swinging beat that anchors things together. "Alarm Call" has a similarly catchy beat almost reminiscent of something that would be in funk music, while "Hunter" opens the entire album up in a totally different fashion; rather than being catchy or upbeat, it actually ends up being one of the bleakest songs and one of the most accurate representations of what tone Bjork was going for on this album. Something that this album has that some of her albums lack, however, is a perfect stylistic balance. The record is dark and isolated, but there's just enough optimism and exploration to keep you interested; there's never too much of either, and the instrumentation follows suit by shifting dynamics and rhythms at all the right locations. The biggest strengths of this album are its focus and consistency, most likely attributed to keeping most of it devoted to a certain specific musical "flavor"; everything is just tied together very nicely.
In the end, Homogenic is not just an album; it's a journey. Bjork has crafted an electronic/trip-hop masterpiece alongside the likes of DJ Shadow's ...Endtroducing, Massive Attack's Mezzanine, and Portishead's album Dummy; some even consider it one of the best and most influential albums of the 90s. While the latter could be up for debate, I'd contend that the former is true for sure. Let's face it: if you're a Bjork fan, you probably own this or have listened to it already; if you haven't though, make sure you experience this magic for yourself. It's one of this lady's most wonderful achievements.