Live: Bjork Takes Us to Church



Madison Square Garden
September 24, 2007

For nearly the past decade, Bjork has been making decidedly interior music, music so hushed and intimate and textured that it really sounds best on headphones, alone, walking outside late at night. I once read an interview where she said she made Vespertine with laptop speakers in mind. Even her biggest, rowdiest post-Post songs (“Where Is the Line?,” “Earth Intruders”) are fragile, twisty thought-fragments that unfold according to their own logic. And when she tried to make a motivational individuality-anthem on this year’s Volta, the result was the ludicrously awkward and somewhat unlistenable “Declare Independence,” maybe my least favorite Bjork song ever. Since her stuff depends so completely on subjective absorption, it was deeply weird hearing these songs in a setting as massively communal as Madison Square Garden. Last night was the first time I’d ever seen Bjork live, but most of the New York shows she’s done over the last few years have been relatively off-the-map venues: churches, the minor-league baseball stadium in Coney Island, the Apollo Theatre. I think I see the logic at work in picking those venues: for this interior music to work in a communal context, they have to somehow refer back to that other way in which people experience individual rapture in big numbers: church. I’m stretching a bit here, but all those venues can have an almost religious ceremonial air. If you can remember the first time you saw a lit-up baseball field, you know what I’m saying about Keyspan Park. And even Radio City Music Hall, the biggest place she played during her three-night stand earlier this year, has a sort of mystical glamor. Madison Square Garden, on the other hand, is a big concrete sports-arena. It may be the most hallowed big concrete sports-arena on the planet, and it may have amazing sound for a big concrete sports-arena, but it’s pretty much impossible to make it feel like anything other than a big concrete sports-arena. And so the best shows I’ve seen there (White Stripes, Justin Timberlake, Nine Inch Nails) featured acts who played the venue like it was a big concrete sports-arena, displaying the exact sort of crowd-pleasing showmanship that works in big, concrete sports arenas. For big chunks of last night’s show, Bjork tried to fill the venue with her quasi-religious thing, but it never quite felt like I was sitting anywhere other than an uncomfortable plastic seat jammed up next to another two uncomfortable plastic seats in a big concrete sports-arena. I went to last night’s show hoping to be moved. I was impressed, but I was never moved.

Everything about Bjork’s stage-set on this tour feels warmly ritualistic, especially the massive singing female horn-section, every member of which wore an absurd fake-native smock with a matching spiky headdress. Those girls made up most of last night’s onstage personnel, but she also had a few male instrumentalists up there, quietly and assuredly banging away at their keyboards and drums and vast banks of electronics and, OK, jumping around like goofballs when they didn’t have anything else to do. To call the set ritualistic isn’t to say that it wasn’t lively. Bjork herself is, of course, a total sparkplug of a performer. Last night, she wore a plastic-looking gold-lame dress with a whole lot of ruffles, and she looked something like a fake Christmas tree. She ducked and twirled and toe-danced around the stage, hardly ever standing still. During “Hunter,” the second song, she sprayed some sort of Spider-Man webbing out of her fingers and over the front rows, and during “Cover Me” she tiptoed slowly forward, looking for all the world like she was playing Tinkerbell in a grade-school stage-production of Peter Pan. She’s a lot of fun to watch, and as a singer she’s just incredible. She may pursue her muse to all sorts of weird places, and her accent might give her voice a tingly alien sharpness, but her range and control are just crazy. And she never even seems to be trying; her face never so much as turns red, even when she draws huge notes out forever. When she brought out Antony for “Dull Flame of Desire,” the two of them sounded like an alternate-universe Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson: two incontrovertible-weirdo virtuosos finding common ground in the sublime while thousands watched. That voice alone justified her presence in the Garden’s big room, and the rapturous reception the crowd gave all her flailings reminded me of an old Lester Bangs piece about seeing Barry White at the same venue, Bangs looking on baffled and fascinated while White gravely intoned the word “love” over and over again and thousands lost their shit.

As entertaining as all this was, I would’ve rather seen Bjork treat Madison Square Garden like the sports-arena it is and played the greatest-hits set that almost everyone else who steps on that stage brings. She certainly has the hits for it, and it would’ve been amazing to her hear her bust out “It’s All So Quiet” and “Big Time Sensuality,” even if she’s all but disowned those tracks by this point. At first, it looked like she might even try something like that, skipping out onstage to “Earth Intruders” while fireballs exploded upward behind her. But then she spent about an hour doing wispy, quiet songs, never dipping into anything that predated Homogenic. Of course, when she did finally rip into “Army of Me,” the string of rowdy jams that followed felt like total explosions of joy. “Hyperballad” was particularly great; before it ended, it morphed into a jittery rave freakout, complete with green lazer-lights shooting everywhere and confetti-cannons spraying. For a little while, the show was exactly what I’d been hoping for. And then she left the stage, and her encores were a farting oompah-jazz read of “Oceania” and the aforementioned “Declare Independence.” Last night’s show had plenty of amazing individual moments, but I walked out wishing I’d seen her in a church or something instead.

Voice review: Greg Tate on Bjork’s Volta
Voice review: Laura Sinagra on Bjork’s Medulla
Voice review: Ann Powers on Bjork’s Live Box
Voice review: Emma Pearse on Bjork’s Vespertine
Voice review: Scott Woods on Bjork’s Selmasongs
Voice review: Vince Aletti on Bjork’s Homogenic