Next month, Björk will release her ninth record, “Utopia,” the love-lit flipside to 2015’s black-depths heartbreak album “Vulnicura.” Where the latter documented her passage through emotional purgatory, picking over in painful detail the breakdown of her marriage to Matthew Barney, “Utopia” will be a vision of “paradise,” a rediscovery of the endless renewal of love and life.
This journey back into the light will travel in parallel with another Björk record: “Homogenic,” her third album, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last month. Like “Vulnicura,” “Homogenic” followed bad times for Björk; it’s a clear-eyed diamond of a record, forged in a pressured, tumultuous period where she hit, as she put it, “rock bottom.” Her relationship with her celebrity status was becoming increasingly fraught; in February 1996, she’d snapped and attacked a reporter, Julie Kaufman, in Bangkok airport. She had been further drained by an intense relationship with drum’n’bass pioneer Goldie, which had sputtered to an end despite rumors of impending marriage.
She was also simply exhausted. After moving from Reykjavik to London at the beginning of 1993, she’d dived into club culture, electronic music, unexpected fame, new collaborations and sounds. “Debut” (1993) and “Post” (1995) had been both highly praised and heavily toured over an intense four years, so intense that she’d lost her voice.
Worse was to come: in autumn of 1996, Björk was knocked sideways by the suicide and attempt on her life of a troubled fan, Ricardo López, who bomb-rigged a letter to her, before shooting himself in the head on camera. After his body was discovered and the bomb intercepted, Björk was besieged by paparazzi on her doorstep. Profoundly shocked, she briefly considered quitting music, she decided instead that “the best thing I could do would be to write more songs.”
Through those songs, recorded in a Spanish retreat, she worked her way from her rock bottom to the peak described in “Alarm Call”: “I want to go on a mountain top/With a radio and good batteries/And play a joyous tune/And free the human race from suffering.”“Homogenic” was a restatement of her belief in music, in life, and in love. At the same time, it was a forceful statement of identity, giving the lie to two-dimensional stereotypes of Björk as kooky, elfin pixie with a richly 3D soundworld that embodied her wide taste and her musicianship, from contemporary underground electronic sounds to lush string arrangements. She left no room for herself to be infantilised or dismissed on the likes of “Bachelorette,” which asserts its right to self-definition with a high-drama orchestral flounce: “I’m a fountain of blood/In the shape of girl.”
That song also bears a warning to a lover who doesn’t keep faith: “If you forget my name, you will go astray.” Björk’s earlier songs typically presented love as a brave, bold mission, a leap off a cliff into the unknown, part of the great adventure. In “Homogenic,” as in “Vulnicura,” she confronts the realization that sometimes others cannot, or will not, live up to that credo. “Family was always our sacred mutual mission/Which you abandoned,” she sings in “Vulnicura’s” “Black Lake.” In “Homogenic’s” “5 Years,” she spits “I’m so bored of cowards/Who say they want, and then they can’t handle … you can’t handle love.” “Homogenic” exorcises that anger, reaching a furious climax on “Pluto,” in which Björk is reborn from a cocoon of volcanic techno-metal noise: “Excuse me, but I just need to explode … explode this body off me.” By the album’s end, resolution is reached in the form of “All Is Full of Love,” a soft, glowing track which reaches the liberating conclusion that even if individual loves fail, it doesn’t mean that love is a lie: it is all around, in many forms, though “maybe not from the sources you have poured yours.” Love can be family, friends, love of humanity, and the world. It can also be found in music, a powerful connecting force.
“I used to have all these opinions about love, because I’m fierce, hopeless romantic,” Björk said at the time. “What happened is that my expectations about romance were there, but what was really happening was here. The elastic stretched so much it cracked. And now I’m more realistic about things. I love so many people. Your mate doesn’t have to replace everything.”
Björk identified “Pluto” and “All Is Full of Love” respectively with Ragnarök, the world-ending battle of Norse myth, and the new dawn, the new world, that is born afterwards. “Utopia’s” “The Gate,” and its video, depict a similar new world, fresh with innocence though born of bitter experience. “The last album was very much about grief and sadness,” Björk said, “and I guess when you grind the bottom conscientiously you’re gonna eventually float up to the surface!” Like “All Is Full of Love,” “The Gate,” she said, was about “‘love’ in a more transcendent way. ‘Vulnicura’ was about a very personal loss, and I think this new album is about a love that’s even greater. It’s about rediscovering love – but in a spiritual way, for lack of a better word.’”
At the same time as Björk was touring “Vulnicura” and writing “Utopia,” I was writing a book about “Homogenic,” and seeing links back to it everywhere. Part of what makes “Homogenic” so endlessly fascinating to me is that it so often seems like an origin story for what came later, a statement of intent that left Björk free to grow in many directions; it illuminates all her later work, but never marks the limits. And of course, as we grow older, faith in love and life is perhaps harder to rediscover; the shocks hit heavier, the answers ring less resoundingly. “Didn’t used to be so needy,” Björk sings softly during “The Gate’s” most affecting moment, her face coming into sharp focus. “Just more broken than normal.” From hell to heaven and back again, but each time, the journey is a little different. The cycle spirals up and outward, growing ever more complex. Even when we reach “Utopia,” you can be sure there’ll be some trouble in paradise; but Björk’s music will always be there to help us when we fall.