The Zeitgeist Reloaded

An ecstatic, tear-bursting evening in Björk's pagan gospel church

James Baldwin liked to say "Artists are here to disturb the peace." True that, Jimmy, true that. But when those rowdies are really on their game, they also rip folks out of mortal time and the fear of extinction. Lunge them away from their circadian lockstep and into the white-water roller-coaster rush of mythicized ritual frenzy, becoming mad, redemptive angel-banshees on the loose, casting wide nets, screaming love on that ass.

A lifetime of loving Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman prepares you to love Björk and the way she worries the notes, stresses tonality until it cracks not because she can't help it but because she lives to crucify a pretty melody with her own brand of wounded, buck-wild, Middle Earth dissonance. She has become this century's zeitgeist artist for that reason, that alarming sonic tongue she uses to zap her diversity-conference audience's sense of emergency, fragility, and pure animal panic. She also operatically exalts and exudes that most elusive and fanciful of human desires: untrammeled, untamable freedom, laid out to the pomo techno-tribalist beat all you earthbound E.T.'s now call home. What the funk were the Wachowski Brothers going for in that Matrix Reloaded rave scene? Nothing less than the pagan gospel church of Björk in full-spectacle throw-down mode.

At her Cinco de Mayo gig at the United Palace Theatre in Harlem—where you can still go Sunday afternoons to catch Reverend Ike preach the gospel of "plenteousness"—Björk showed a Negro how far we've come from 1964: lots of grown-ass white women skuh-reem-ing her name like bobby-soxers and teenyboppers once shrieked for Frank, Elvis, and the Beatles. Even everybody's favorite gangstress, our girl dream Hampton, broke down in tears the moment Björk opened her mouth. Lots of grown-ass Others doing the same: Blackfolk, queerfolk, Latinfolk, Asianfolk, hippiefolk, gothfolk, hipsterfolk, graypantherfolk . . . Björk's is a hunter-gatherer ministry calling all barbarous bohemian nations. Plenty of nappyheads for sure (you know we represented), but was trill hiphop in the house? No, nobody vaguely resembling a single ATL stripper in sight, though human nature tells us, just like East Village Nuyorican she-males once transformed the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" into a personal problem, down in the Dirty, Björk's probably inside hella pole dancers' iPods. "Pagan Poetry"? You know them girls are living there: "Swirling black lilies totally ripe/A secret code carved."

Beloved by all—even pole dancers
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Beloved by all—even pole dancers

But forgive me for being so gauche. Like us old heads used to do with Miles, I'm not even supposed to tell you what she sounded like before telling you what she was wearing, but a brother's thousand-yard stare ain't what it used to be and, strained for details (Was that bell of Halloween-flavored plumage made of feathers or taffeta? Were those thigh-high witch's boots?), all we know for true is a black storm of barely shorn hair got shook like a Polaroid picture, and nobody does the centaur dance better.

Her band of gypsies included an all-homegirl brass ensemble, a vocal choir decked out in gaily colored church robes, a drummer, a synthesist, and a laptop jockey who doubled on a 'Pod-rigged wheel of steel. Special guests per her new album, Volta, included Antony (minus the Johnsons), two members of the Congo's own opening act Konono No. 1, and Ming Xiao-Fen bluesing her pipa like the spirit of Blind Willie McTell had gotten all up in her area. Gargantuan eco-friendly banners were strung across the back of the stage as if UN Plaza had been taken over by tree huggas with attitude. Nobody since Larry Levan has bewitched or deafened a crowd like her, and he's for damn sure up there in snap heaven raining "fiercefaeriewarriorqueenbeatchyoubettawork!" catcalls down upon her.

No brag just fact: Like she already told you, when it comes to being post-everything, every-freaking-body short of Stockhausen, Sylvester, and Joni Mitchell needs to go get a late pass. The set list spun gold and new, crescendoing through nothing borrowed and plenty newfangled Icelandic-tinged country blues. If you're deep off in the cult, you won't be mad at Volta—she'll likely already have you at hello and whatnot. And at this point, like Prince, she's a legacy artist. Her best work's not necessarily behind her, but what is behind her is kinda genius, and whatever happens now is postscript. Still, we'll review: Volta's brass ensemble thing sounds a wee bit too Stravinsky-on- Demerol. In concert, it was more haunting, droning, and Doppler Effect–ish, poking up through the martial drum din and then receding. And maybe it's just moi, but her and Antony on the same track . . . don't you think that might be too much drama, m'dear? Like Freddie Mercury had done a mating dance with Nina Simone. We're supposed to humanly process all that surgical emoting at once? Your call, G, I'm just saying.

Thankfully, Björk and kora master Toumani Diabaté both seem more comfortable in their own skins, more like when handshakes collide rather than worlds. Her pairing with thumb-piano–flaunting Konono No. 1, on the other hand, makes for more friction despite their mutual affinities. And the very prospect of her and Timbaland chirping and hiccuping on the same track is hands-down the best idea for a collab anyone's had since Sun Ra and John Cage made nice on Coney Island in 1986. Missy so owns Tim's thang that when you hear these Björk/Tim joints, you may feel compelled to drop the hee-haws in her absence. But the first one to mash up Volta's "Declare Independence" and Missy's "She's a Bitch" is a ripened lily.

The freak-flag–waving "Independence," by the way, served as Björk's electropunk encore at Reverend Ike's Palace. One can only imagine what pandemonium might have ensued had her battle cry been a genuinely risky non-sequitur like "Fuck the Police." Even so, Tolkien never told us the Elf had militant-house anthems for days. Or that whatever scares this hi-fi priestess ain't got nothing to do with man, god, machine, mother nature, or the way of the drum.

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