SONGS FROM TOMORROW FUTURISTIC POP BY SINGER BJORK AND TRIP-HOP
TIME, October 20, 1997, pp 117.
We often tend to imagine the future as something less human than
the past. The years ahead seem populated with clones and robots
and aliens, as well as the erosion or perversion of the things
that connect people with other people, like families and friendships
and religion. Perhaps the best thing about the music of the British
trip-hop group Portishead, and the Icelandic pop diva Bjork, is
that it sounds futuristic but never inhuman. Portishead's new
album, Portishead, and Bjork's latest CD, Homogenic, echo with
sounds that could belong to the next millennium. But both are
also suffused with a soulfulness that is timeless.
Portishead's groundbreaking debut album, Dummy (1994), along
with producer-rapper Tricky's Maxinquaye (1995), helped define
the nascent genre of trip-hop, an arty European variant of hip-hop
characterized by dreamy lyrics and lounging, lulling song structures.
Portishead is another stellar work. While Dummy's sound was sweetened
with recognizable melodic flavors drawn from R. and B. and gospel,
the new album is stranger, more unsettling, more sour. Vocalist
Beth Gibbons' voice is distorted on many of the tracks, stretched
thin and left floating high and parched over shards of melody
and jagged bits of rhythm. One song, All Mine, has a sound that
might be described as big-band noir, with blaring horns and desperate,
almost manic vocals. Another, Half Day Closing, ends with Gibbons'
eerie wail twisting wraithlike into the ether. And Humming opens
with a portentous Moog-synthesizer solo that seems borrowed, in
mood, from a '50s sci-fi film. The songs on Portishead have one
unifying feature: they all seem constructed on a wasteland of
despair. Producer-songwriter Geoff Barrow, who, along with Gibbons,
forms the core of Portishead, says simply, "I'm not a very
optimistic person, really."
Bjork's work, in contrast, has been characterized by an insistent
sprightliness. Yet that upbeat temperament should not be mistaken
for shallowness or lack of guile. Throughout Homogenic, there
is a current of danger and violence. On the driving Bachelorette,
Bjork sings, "I'm a fountain of blood, my love/ In the shape
of a girl." And on the high-voltage, techno-infused Pluto,
she sings, "Excuse me/ but I just have to explode."
The album's sound is a collision of classical style (violins and
cellos) and bruising electronic beats.
Bjork's voice, like Gibbons' on Portishead's CD, unifies and
personalizes her album. Bjork shrieks and moans and hits strong,
fresh notes, or does whatever is required to convey the emotions
raging inside her. The seeming spontaneity of her performance
is what's exciting. In the video for Joga, the first single from
Homogenic, we see computer-generated images of landmasses, as
if from a great height, and then Bjork herself, standing on a
high hill, a gap in her chest exposing her swirling insides. The
camera plunges within. In a future world of computer images, what
still attracts us is the heart.