The Good: Moments of lyrics, voice, sound
The Bad: Much of the album is oversimplified, Much is bland and sounds already done (by Bjork),Short.
The Basics: Bjork rises up into average territory with an album that is poetic, but often more noisy and poorly vocalized.
Those who follow my reviews might wonder why I've spent the past few days in the Music section panning albums by Icelandic alternative/techno artist Bjork. Well, the truth is, I sat down a few weeks ago and decided to broaden my horizons. I had blown my mind by listening to the debut of Janis Ian (reviewed here!) and thought "This is phenomenal, I ought to explore something I've never given a real listen to before!" Bjork was a favorite of someone who was once very important to me and I liked the video for "All Is Full Of Love." So, Bjork seemed like a good choice.
With an Obi-Wan Kenobi delivery, I now say, "I was wrong." The prior albums of Bjork's I've heard and reviewed have presented Bjork as an artist with the new thing that is truly new, different and creepy and so unsettling as to be unlistenable. With Homogenic, I found a Bjork that was much more familiar, mundane and about the same overall quality as her other works.
With ten tracks clocking in at 43:37, Homogenic was the Bjork album I had heard the most from prior to hearing the album. I had seen the video for "All Is Full Of Love," and I know I had heard "Hunter," "Bachelorette" and "Joga" before this. Perhaps they had been on the "Greatest Hits" album, but Homogenic represents a rather pure vision of Bjork, at least as she was producing in 1997 when it was released. Eight of the songs were written by her, one was co-written by Bjork and the last was written by Sjon, who co-wrote "Joga" with her. She produced or co-produced all but two tracks and she played the keyboards on the album. She provides all of the primary vocals as well. So, it does seem reasonable to consider this Bjork's vision as an artist.
With Homogenic, Bjork passes outside alternative into a more regular style of techno/dance/pop, with tracks like "Bachelorette" and "Alarm Call." The result is an album that is easier to judge as a comparative work than some of Bjork's prior works. Unfortunately, the album also falls into a number of very formulaic pop-dance conceits that weaken the sense of originality Bjork usually brings to a work. The flipside of that is that what isn't formulaic dance-pop/techno-alternative is very distinctly Bjork with many of the weaknesses that entails.
As the album cycles into the eleventh playing on my player, I am struck first by the sound of it. The songs on Homogenic have remarkably similar sounds to one another. Musically, this is an album that has one - maybe two - imaginative sounds to it but then simply repeats or reworks the same formula on other tracks. So, there are songs like "Unravel" and "All Is Full Of Love" that utilize an orchestral sound - often fronted by a throbbing dance-beat to keep it from being a neo-classical music - and then there are songs like the keyboard heavy, ultra-produced "5 Years."
"5 Years" is a great example of where Homogenic goes wrong. The track sounds initially creative by replacing the traditional drums with scratching static to keep the beat. But the keyboards and harmony are hardly as imaginative and the result is just a pretty traditional pop song with a cool sounding beat, which makes it pretty much your average dance track.
And Bjork seems determined to fill the tracks up with sound. So, "Immature" has all sorts of beeping and some pulsing ring in it that sounds like computers or telephones gone awry. "Bachelorette" includes animal noises that are more annoying than intriguing and one of the more interesting tracks, "Alarm Call," is just so full of sound that it becomes jumbled and confused. One of the best pop-rock songs of all time, the B-52's "Love Shack" is arguably so great because it is so musically complex; there are at least four levels of sound going on at all times in the song (save the important pause). The track works because they are all working to create one larger theme. "Alarm Call" has a lot going on but it just seems busy and confused. So, right before Bjork begins growling through some of the last choruses, there is a potential wonderful musical moment where the primary vocal cuts out, there's the instrumentals, the background vocals saying "beep beep beep beep" and "Doesn't scare me at all" and then there's a "Oooh-oh-oh-oh-ooh" thrown in and on top of that is an annoying beeping noise. It's when that last sound comes in that the song collapses as a musical mess. It becomes Bjork's speaking in tongues.
As least "Alarm Call" has some build up before it goes bad. Musically, "Pluto" is a loss from the beginning and its traditional dance-techno beat and performance is quickly tiresome.
What is about as boring or troubling as the sound of most of the instrumentals and production elements on the album is the vocals. "Pluto" is especially screechy and annoying. Bjork begins presenting feedback-style scale progressions that are just noisy and unpleasant and they are not even musically interesting. Instead, it sounds like a woman screaming into the microphone and my reaction to that is "who cares?" It's not musical and it's not expressive and it does not say anything that relates even remotely to the lyrics.
That said, Homogenic also includes some of the most natural instances of Bjork's voice. "All Is Full Of Love" presents her voice in a clear and direct way and the song is quite beautiful. In fact, the only problem with the vocals on that song come back to the pronunciations. Bjork - like far too many artists who want to be a hit in the United States - insists on singing in English and the result does not always work. So, for example, "y's" especially come out awkward with a "d'j" sound often. And no matter how many times I hear "All Is Full Of Love," she mangles "Twist your head around" so badly that it always sounds like "Trust your head around" to me.
But with "All Is Full Of Love" and "Unravel" there is the sense that Bjork can actually sing when she is not being overproduced and drown out by production elements and instrumentals. Even "Alarm Call" has its moments - actually, it's mostly the background vocals that she provides that sell any vocal quality to the song - where vocally it comes through.
But more often than not, the album has the vocals altered by reverb, phase shifts or other production elements. This starts with the first track, "Hunter," where Bjork is meant to sound very far away and the effect is more unimpressive than she no doubt intended. And when her voice is brought to the forefront, it is presented with such overlapping reverb that it becomes more noisy than hypnotic. It's one of those songs I suspect people using something like LSD might appreciate more than sober folk.
On the subject of "Hunter," the listener of Homogenic is likely to be fairly unimpressed on the lyrical front. In this fashion, I find myself wishing Bjork were vastly more popular so there would be more parodies of her work out there. After all, whenever I hear Bjork earnestly repeating (over and over) "I'm going hunting / I'm the hunter" ("Hunter") I just hear a parody in my head singing "I'm doing some baking / I'm a baker" and "I'm preparing taxes / I'm the accountant." I mean wow, Bjork has mastered English enough to associate a hunter with hunting; no wonder she's huge with the club scene!
My point with this (other than that I was hoping to have this review done before the twelfth spinning of this disc began - and I failed) is that the lyrics are frequently dull on Homogenic, when they can be understood through the garbled vocal presentations. Sure, there are a few good lines like "I'm a fountain of blood . . . / In the shape of a girl" ("Bachelorette") and "All is full of love / You just ain't receiving" ("All Is Full Of Love"), but more often than not they are either obscured or dull.
On that subject, allusions - I was taught back when I was in writing classes training to be a writer - are only as good as the connection they make in the reader (in this case, listener). So when Bjork sings lines like ". . .[you will] Go astray / [like a] killer whale trapped in a bay" ("Bachelorette") the result is more baffling than poetic and cute. When I think of things that go astray, killer whales aren't even on the list! It's not a strong connection. Maybe in Iceland, but not in the U.S. It just doesn't work. It's either a bad allusion or weird for the sake of weird.
Actually, Homogenic is pulled up by some of the lyrics. "Unravel" is beautifully creative and truly poetic with lines like "While you are away / My heart comes undone / Slowly unravels / In a ball of yarn." It might be simple, but it is sweet and beautiful in its way.
But it's not enough to recommend Homogenic. The lyrics are better to read more than listening to the album, much like reading summaries of episodes of Enterprise is better than watching the episodes (I swear whenever they begin speaking on that show, it just dies). Bjork might be a poet here but she does not present the poetry well.
Even her best poetry on Homogenic is undermined by either the vocals or musical presentation (usually production elements that seek to make the sound of each song unnecessarily complex).
The best track is the simple and beautiful "All Is Full Of Love," the low point is the terrible, noisy and unredeemable "Pluto."
For other reviews by female Artist Of The Month artists, please check out my reviews of:
Hits & Rarities - Sheryl Crow
Educated Guess - Ani DiFranco
My Love: Ultimate Essential Collection - Celine Dion
For music reviews organized from best to worst, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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