For producer Howie B, listening to the third solo album from Icelandic enigma Bjork, Homogenic (Sept. 23) is almost too much. There is one track, he said, he just can't get through. "I can't even bear to hear it," B told Addicted To Noise.
The intensely-personal CD is so rife with raw emotion and sparse atmospherics, that the long-time Bjork collaborator feels the pain too closely. The 10-track album, the first in which the singer had a hand in producing nearly every track, is both the most subdued and experimental album in an already eclectic career.
And it is, by far, the most personal.
"She has an amazing ability to express herself with her voice, while also using a distinctive melody," said B. "When someone can express themselves with that dexterity, which sounds funny because it's how you talk about hands... but her music moves me and Bono does the same thing with his voice. Robbie (Robertson, with whom B has collaborated with for Robertson's new album and a track on his own album) can do that to me. Few singers can do it, though."
Having recorded the singer's vocals on a few tracks and produced the final cut on the album, "All is Full of Love," a shimmering "Over the Rainbow"-type ballad with subtle electronic backing, B said he was happy to act as a sounding board during the recording. "I've worked on all her records," B said, "but this time she wanted to take more control and I was an ear for her when she needed it." B said he listened to in-the-works tracks "all the time," while working on his own upcoming solo album, as well as touring with U2.
B said he was so affected and moved by his work with Bjork on Homogenic, that there is actually one track (he wouldn't say which) that he can't listen to. "Because of what she's saying on that song, I can't even bear to hear it because you can so clearly hear the pain there. The anger and the angst... it's a very emotional record, it's very brave. Once you hear it, you'll get it."
Bjork credits an intense and personally-trying 1996, in which she was involved in a physical confrontation with a camera crew in Bangkok, had her love life splashed across British tabloid pages and fell victim to a bomb scare, as inspiring the album's string-laden, introspective sound.
Recorded in El Madronal in Southern Spain, where Bjork escaped to following a nerve-rattling scenario in which a suicidal American fan sent her a letter bomb before killing himself on videotape, the album is a groundbreaking collision of classical and club culture. The odd journey begins with one of four tracks debuted at this summer's Tibetan Freedom Concert, "Hunter," one of several songs that make use of frantic, heartbeat-mimicking rhythms and spacy vocal effects.
Nearly all of the tracks feature haunting strings courtesy of the Icelandic String Octet, whose swelling sounds weave in and out of the first single, "Joga," as well as the agitated trip-hop of "5 Years," where the strings battle with a fuzzed-out, torn-speaker rhythm track and such confessional lines as: "I'm so bored of cowards," "I dare you to take me on" and the chill-inducing refrain "you can't handle love." Bjork's musical maturity also rears its head in her vocals, infused with seething emotions and a scaling range broader than her trademark girlish-whisper-to-a-throaty-growl.
Although packed with a number of ballads, including the faint heartbeat and harp electronic/string-laden tune "Unravel," the spooky, delicate "All Neon Like" and "Immature"'s tick-tocky beat and minimal mantra-like lyrics, Homogenic does have a few trademark Bjork remix-ready futuristic dance tracks.
"5 Years" is propelled by ripped air, jungly beats, while "Alarm Call" is packed with the album's most aggressive beats, rattling programmed hip-hop rhythms that offset its bouncy New Order-style bass line and computer squiggle sound effects. "Pluto" jumps out as the most techno-influenced track, with wildly-distorted robot vocals and chaotic blasts of mechanized samples and laser gun sound.
The album also contains the song "Bachelorette," yet another track that features watery, frantic drum & bass breaks overlaid with dramatic strings and a bassy piano riff over an intense bossa nova beat. One of the more menacing tracks on the album, it also contains some of the most disturbing and abstract, lyrical images in Bjork's songbook, including the opening line, "I'm a fountain of blood/ in the shape of a girl," "I'm a path of cinders/ burning under your feet" and the eerie "I'm a tree that grows hearts/ One for each that you take."
In this month's Raygun magazine, Bjork said of her sound, "...electricity and electronics should be electronic, they shouldn't try to be like Japanese flute or violin. They should be proud of what they are... I think technology is very warm and sentimental, as well. It can be very mushy and emotional. I wanted Homogenic to reflect where I'm from, what I'm about. I wanted the beats to be almost distorted; imagine if there was Icelandic techno."
The singer goes on to talk about the emotional "crash" that led to her Spanish sojourn. "Emotionally," she says, "this album is about hitting rock bottom and earning your way up. So it's the darkest album I've done emotionally, but it's got a lot of hope."
LFO's Mark Bell is credited with developing the beats and "sonic signature" of the album and Eumir Deodato, who arranged the strings on "HyperBallad" and "You've Been Flirting Again," both from Bjork's last album, Post, helped score the multiple string arrangements. [Wed., Sept. 17, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]