If you stepped off of a desert island anytime within the past two years and headed down to your local record store to see what Björk was up to, you might take one look at her recent spate of releases and jump to the conclusion that she was dead. Since the release of her critically acclaimed Vespertine album in 2001, Björk and her record label have pulled the famed “dead star” marketing move, emptying the vaults of every possible piece of recorded material, and then releasing it again under a different name or in an alternate format. In this short window Björk’s name has been attached to a greatest hits collection, the Family Tree box set, the Live Box set featuring a live album to coincide with each studio album, and finally the individual release of each live album from the Live Box in June of this year. While rumors persist that Björk is alive and well, readying her new album of original material for release in August, in the interim we are left to sort through a rag tag assemblage of musical hand-me-downs that leave us with more questions than answers.
The studio album, and resulting tour, Live Homogenic chronicles is a classic display of showmanship as Björk subtly reinvents herself with the use of subtle electronics, grand orchestration, dynamic vocal performances and her usual accompaniment of ethereal songs. The shift is a significant one as she distances herself from many of the radio and dance floor ready offerings that blanketed her first two solo records in lieu of a darker, more difficult sound. Despite the haunting beauty of the original Homogenic album, Live Homogenic is a pretty tepid affair. It fails to meet the three key criteria for a successful live album: it does not feature startling new arrangements that present the listener with an alternate perspective of the songs recorded for the album; it is recorded over an entire year, some live and some for television so it lacks the cohesiveness of an entire live show from the same evening or series of performances on a number of consecutive evenings; there is little fan interplay so at times it sounds like a marginal studio recording rather than a dynamic live album. However, the album is not without charm.
One of the major winning points is that it incorporates Homogenic favorites like “Hunter”, “Joga” and “Pluto” with past hits “Human Behavior” and “Isobel”. Björk sounds provocative as she tears through these tracks with an acuity that proves her outstanding studio work is the real deal and not manufactured in post-production. The larger issue is that her backing band is content to simply retread the proven arrangements for these songs rather than reinterpret them in any way. Because preprogrammed beats and synthesizers are so essential to Björk’s sound this leaves her little room to improvise. The one time where she finds the space is with a brief Michael Jackson scat in “I Go Humble”. What could have been a glorious crowd stirring moment ends up feeling harried as Björk is forced by the calculating machines to jump to the next verse before she can truly explore and exploit the compelling lyrical segue.
Loyalists to Björk are sure to focus on the authenticity of these live collections. They will say that these are historical markers of the beauty and majesty of Björk’s voice and her compositions. It will also be mentioned that Live Homogenic is evidence that electronic music can be made human and interesting in a larger rock style concert setting. I’m sure her rabid fan base will also mention that any criticism of these works as live albums is unfair as they were not specifically recorded for commercial release, rather they are artifacts documenting a powerful transitional moment in Björk’s career. The truth of the matter is they are correct on every count. Björk’s album Homogenic was a landmark release in blending the beat conscious melodicism of electronica with the sensibility of a world-class vocalist. It brought lap top music beyond a certain niche and familiarized many with an under-represented genre of music. Beyond all expectations, Homogenic even mobilized these sounds and put them on tour in a grand setting for all the world to hear. The problem is that Live Homogenic fails to share any new insights into the inner workings of Björk and her live experience, telling us little more than what we already learned with the release of its parent album seven years ago.