May 26, 1998
“State of emergency is where I want to be,” Björk sang over and over in her encore at Hammerstein Ballroom last week, but that’s just where she’d been for the previous hour and a half. Working her vocal range like a DJ scratching and fading vinyl, she never merely sang, she shaped noise. She shouted, she whispered, she crooned, she shredded lyrics and rewove them in midair. She moved beyond language, beyond words to create a buzzing, burbling, weirdly thrilling soundscape—a place you could lose yourself in for days. “I don’t recognize myself,” she sang, and we knew just what she meant.
In a funny little white leather Jeremy Scott dress with pleated, bat-wing sleeves, she was Alice in Wonderland as Merlin the Magician, lost in spaces that only she could have imagined. Björk has always seemed to inhabit a world of her own, part twee fantasyland, part gnarly fun house. For the Hammerstein show, the stage was transformed into an underwater scene with a backdrop of flimsy scarves that fluttered like seaweed. Foaming billows of cellophane hung high above the singer, clear streamers dangled around her, and she bobbed before liquid projections. But because Björk is not entirely at home in swoony psychedelia, the tranquilized mood was repeatedly undercut by blackouts and shattered by harsh spotlights trained out into the audience. Björk thrives in this gap between comfort and unease, sweet and sour, lulling us and jolting us by turns. She knows the drama of extremes and the excitement when they mesh. On one side of the stage was an atoll of strings; on the other, Mark Bell and a craggy mountain of synthesizers. Scampering between them, Björk appeared to mix sound with a wave of her wings, sending jagged keyboard shards crunching through the violins like a crosscut saw through silk.
“I thought I could organize freedom/How Scandinavian of me,” Björk confesses in “Hunter,” and clearly she’s learned to let go. But, onstage and on her records, she’s also learned how to turn chaos to her own ends. She wills herself to lose control. She strides into a song tentatively, or forcefully, then lets it take her and toss her voice every which way. Listening to her, the rush of release is exhilaratingly physical; watching her, you long to be equally possessed. But if Björk’s hyperemotionality edges into gorgeous mess, it never goes there. She might skewer her songs with raw, crashing synths, but her vocals remain meticulously orchestrated, operatic even when frayed. This tiny gamine, buffeted by sweet cacophony at center stage, only rides a whirlwind when she can hold the reins real tight.
Because she sings about transformation, metamorphosis, it often comes as a surprise that Björk’s also singing love songs. Even when you pay close attention, the songs tend to dissolve and bubble away, leaving phrases to float through the brain: “Don’t get angry with yourself,” “emotional landscapes,” “You can’t handle love.” One song on her latest album, Homogenic (Elektra), is composed entirely of what seem to be overheard quotes, most memorably “I’m no fucking Buddhist but this is enlightenment.” No matter. Björk turns words into atmosphere—bursts of sensibility that use language as freely as they use sound. In “5 Years,” when she bites into the line “I’m so bored of cowards,” her anger is bracing; she turns the word cowards into a chewed-up piece of garbage and tosses it into a pot of boiling synths. In “All Neon Like,” she promises, “I’ll heal you,” but follows it, “with a razorblade, I’ll cut a slit open and the luminous beam feeds you honey.” Her luminous has nearly eight shimmering syllables. Tossed on wave upon wave of now brittle, now honeyed synth combustions and those impossibly lovely strings, Björk’s lyrics are as ephemeral as smoke, as vivid as a lightning bolt—and sometimes as illuminating.
“Excuse me, but I just have to explode this body,” she tells us, matter-of-factly. Go on, girl. She already knows how to explode a song. At the Hammerstein, she could have been Liza Minelli channeling Lotte Lenya, tossing out crisp little Thank yous in between flights of speaking in tongues. She’s Venus as a girl—or a mermaid, a sprite, a friendly alien. She’s the smallest thing onstage, but she fills the whole room. Who could imagine this? Perhaps only someone yearning to be violently happy and create a soundtrack for the neverending process.