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Northern Exposure

Björk
From Iceland With Calculation: Björk's homeland is more a concept than a country in her songs.

Photo by Jean Baptiste Mondino



Björk stays her eccentric pop course on 'Homogenic'

By Gina Arnold

THE FIRST RULE of rock & roll is, Never call your band or album something that's easy for critics to make fun of. Using the word "sucks" in your title is simply asking for it. Hell, even Jackson Browne's album Running on Empty begged to be capped with the words "and grinding to a halt."

Not giving writers a negative opening is just common sense, but with her third solo LP, Icelandic singer Björk, usually known for her succinctly descriptive titles (Debut for her first album; Post for the next) has pit-fallen big time. Homogenic (Elektra) is far too close to "homogenous," which, come to think of it, describes the sameness of her songs all too well.

In Björk's case, sameness does not necessarily mean bland. In fact, she possesses one of the most unusual voices in pop, and Homogenic showcases her odd vocal style and offbeat song structures. Her voice isn't pretty, but it is extremely compelling. Similarly, her songs, though willfully untuneful, have a certain sonic force that cannot be discounted. Her strong, high voice is also very much an acquired taste, although it is quite a bit less likely to be painful than it used to be.

Despite her undeniable omnipresence in pop culture these days, Björk has yet to prove herself a lasting musical talent. Press material for the new album claims that Björk (born Björk Gudmundsdóttir) has "become a permanent fixture in the media," and to a certain extent this is true. But as that statement unwittingly implies, so far Björk is better known for showing up at awards shows with weird hairdos, and for even weirder videos, than she is for her songs.

Although Björk is credited with co-writing the spooky and beautiful ballad "Bedtime Stories," the title cut from Madonna's last album, the song's signature sound owes as much to that of ace producer Nellee Hooper (who also produced Post) as it does to Björk. And it's worth noting that the one big hit--"It's Oh So Quiet"--from Post was a cover of a '50s big-band standard.

There is such a thing as "Björkiness," however, although it's hard to put a finger on what that strange quality is. For all her stylistic quirkiness--Coolio hair, atonal singing voice and the occasional dress made of plastic and fur--there is something peculiarly sterile about Björk's persona and artistic vision.

"How Scandinavian of me!" she squawks on the song "Hunter," and all that adjective's implications--cold, icy, northern, fey--are correct. She's an interesting character but almost impossible to relate to in an intimate way.

LIKE Alanis Morissette, who was a child star in Canada, Björk began her career by recording an LP of children's songs at age 11. Morissette is often castigated for doing so, but Björk is not, because she has long been approved by MTV as hip and exotic, thanks in part to her nationality.

Indeed, Icelandicness is a hook that's served her well, ever since the days when her first band, the Sugarcubes, achieved international prominence when its record company flew a host of critics to Reykjavik, the capital city, to review them.

The Sugarcubes were a rather atonal and lyrically unintelligible rock band, highly influenced by the Fall and Killing Joke (both of whom had previously toured with soon-to-be Sugarcube members), but front-page stories resulted, and Björk--who went solo in 1992--has been famous ever since.

Iceland is an odd place to be from, no doubt about it. After all, an isolated, nearly Arctic island with volcanic activity is easy to write about (and romanticize). But for all that, neither Björk nor the other Icelandic bands that have followed her to warmer climes (Gus Gus pops to mind) have really explored their culture in a meaningful way. In 1992, Björk recorded Gling-Gló, a jazzy LP of Icelandic pop songs sung, mostly, in Icelandic, but her more mainstream work is mere dance-pop topped by her quirky persona.

Although Homogenic is self-produced, Björk's past reliance on electronic-pop superstars such as Hooper, Graham Massey and Tricky has led her to push otherwise boring, rather self-involved numbers into interesting musical contexts full of such compelling juxtapositions as scratches and tinny child's pop ("Five Years"), and the constant hypnotic buzz (so effective on the Sneaker Pimps' "Six Underground") that gives such a warm, human feel to otherwise programmed rock.

ONE OF BJÖRK'S other effectively humanoid tricks is a kind of lingua-scat in which she deliberately mispronounces English words and vowel sounds. At one point, on the song "Immature" ("eeem-ma-cheeeoooah," in Björkese), she talks about how "ex-ta-reemly lacy I feel," and it's some time before you realize that she doesn't feel like a doily, but, you know, sluggish. On "All Neon Like," she sings the word "nourish" over and over, also "fetuslike," and it takes quite some time to figure out what she's saying, much less why.

Homogenic does boast some elegant touches, particularly the use of an Icelandic string octet--led by Brazilian composer/arranger Eumir Deodato (best known for the disco remix 2001)-- for color within songs that otherwise rely on a variety of electronic instruments, beats and textures. Some of these are rather pleasing, particularly the one that sounds like a heartbeat that opens the entire album, and the octet is also very effective, particularly on the single "Joga" and the dramatic "Bachelorette."

Throughout, Björk sings with almost operatic control, but her lyrics sometimes verge on self-involved nonsense: "I am the hunter!"; "I am the branch broken from your tree!"; "I'm so bored with cowards"; "It's obvious ... it's obvious ... it's obvious."

As she hinted on "Bedtime Stories" ("Let's get unconscious, honey"), Björk is hip to Freud, and one of her themes is the innate surrealness of life and language. But it's a thin line between revelatory stream of consciousness and mere nonsense. When you add in the subjective nature of music and Björk's decided anti-pop bent, her records can become troublingly obtuse: danceable at times and listenable in a highly technical way but never quite free from calculation, the way all the best pop should be.

Björk should be commended for her commitment to experimentation, but although trying to figure out her lyrics can be fun, it's a disappointment when you've finally done so to realize how empty they are at bottom. Somehow, one expects more depth from a woman who is willing to dress up like a fuzzy bear, say strange things in public and just basically be a goof. When the depth's not there, one is all the more disappointed.

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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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