Icelandic artist Björk is something of an enigma, a pure musical wonder-the kind of unparalleled genius you encounter only once or twice in a lifetime. Across the entirety of her career, she’s never been constricted or restrained in her creativity or in its willful disregard for genres or categorization. From her earliest years with The Sugarcubes to her later solo records, her music has lifted away from this physical space; it’s a haunting and ethereal thing that suspends itself along our heartstrings and gently plucks and strums with grace.
As a producer, DJ, singer, songwriter and actress, Björk is no stranger to the multiple roles musicians are often called upon to embrace, resulting in unpredictable experiences that shape their sounds and perspectives in untold ways. Whether she’s working through some mutated pop rhythms or wading waist-deep through bouts of orchestral pomp and theatricality, she brings a level of attention and whimsical foreboding to her songs that no other artist could duplicate. Wrapping surreal lyrical diversions around skewed electronic, jazz and rock proclivities, she carefully manufactures these ghostlike visions so as to confound and upend our sense of reality.
Born Björk Guðmundsdóttir Nov. 21, 1965, in Reykjavik, Iceland, she was raised by her mother (activist Hildur Rúna Hauksdóttir) on a commune after her parents divorced. When she was 6, she was enrolled at a school where she was taught flute and classical piano. After a recital where she sang “I Love to Love” by Tina Charles, her teachers sent a copy of the recording to the RÚV radio station, at the time the only station in Iceland, where it was broadcast nationally. A representative from the Fálkinn record label heard it and immediately offered her a recording contract, leading to the release of her self-titled debut record in December 1977-when she was only 12 years old.
As punk rock made its voice heard in the latter part of the ’70s, she formed an all-girl punk band called Spit and Snot-she would go on to found a jazz fusion band called Exodus the following year and was present for various collaborations with still another band known as Jam80. Throughout the early ’80s, she found herself embroiled in the lives and works of various artists and bands, culminating with her involvement with the arts collective Smekkleysa, which had been created by Einar Örn and Þór Eldon (the latter being her husband and father of her then-recently born child) in 1986. Along with friends and former bandmates Melax and Sigtryggur, as well as Bragi Ólafsson and Friðrik Erlingson, she and this growing group of artists began to develop into a full-fledged band with the initial idea of making money.
This collection of musicians coalesced into The Sugarcubes and attained a great measure of success in peddling a wonderfully weird and wired alternative rock sound. But after three records and many long miles on the road, the group eventually disbanded in 1992, leaving a group of friends who remain close to this day and who all share in the responsibilities of managing the Smekkleysa record label.
Björk moved to London to pursue a solo career and began working with noted producer Nellee Hooper. Their first song, “Human Behaviour,” sampled Antônio Carlos Jobim but, despite its clever musical articulation, was not an immediate hit. It only gained traction once the video (directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Michel Gondry) was shown on MTV.
Her debut record (not counting the one she released in the ’70s) was titled “Debut” and was released in 1993 to instant acclaim. She gave the album this name as a way to break with her former career and start a new evolution that would take on a life of its own. Following in 1995, her sophomore record, “Post,” was a further step in her development toward the eclectic sounds of dance and techno music. It made for a compelling and fascinating listen, even as it spoke to the existence of a much larger philosophy she was just beginning to understand.
It was with the release of her third album, “Homogenic,” that she was able to finally translate the magnificent and complex sounds swirling around in her head into a complete and often-chaotic vision. It was her most extroverted release, leaving the images and ideas that she had cultivated on her previous records lying on the studio floor. And while she hadn’t abandoned those sounds outright, she was far more interested in what “Homogenic” had to reveal about herself and the way she felt about the world than in the eccentricities of the past. She was no longer obsessed with looking inward-there was a grand noise to be made, and she seemed glad to be a part of it.
Working with a handful of producers allowed her to create this landscape of beat-driven rhythms, orchestrated revelries and experimental pop implosions with a much more expansive perspective. Each song was no longer solely focused on her reactions to internal stimuli but was concerned with the beating heart of the world around her. Tracks such as “Jóga” and “Hunter” are marvels of both minimalist and maximalist production, careening between these extremes with a grace and fluidity that leave you open-mouthed and breathing heavy. And with “Bachelorette,” possibly her greatest recorded song, Björk forever changed the way people look at pop music and its dramatic consequences.
From the opening wash of scattered beats and synths of “Hunter” to the gorgeous electronics and vocal majesty of “All Is Full of Love,” this album thrums with a fierce and independent pulse. After her first two records, it seemed that Björk was looking for an adventure, a journey of rediscovery and adaptation, and to say that she found what she was looking for on “Homogenic” would be an understatement. There is no hesitation, no lack of direction here, only the confidence of an artist fully comfortable and secure in their world. And it is a privilege to witness this grand spectacle by her side.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.