Fans flocked to Carnegie Hall on Saturday morning for the first show of Björk’s six-part NYC residency, while just a few blocks away, her new career retrospective at the MoMA was beginning to draw a crowd. Despite the scattered flak she has received for it, the move to arenas like art museums and concert halls is commensurate with the direction in which the Icelandic singer-songwriter’s work has been moving since the outset of her solo career. Her artistic vision has always been challenging and ambitious (even to the point of wild self-indulgence), and is well served by these settings. Saturday’s matinee was just one piece of proof.
The performance was not showy and ostentatious, at least by Björk standards; at its most spare, fragile moments, it felt even recital-like, due to both the refined and flattering acoustics of the hall and the nature of the program. The focus of this string of performances is Vulnicura, her most recent album and most personal to date, which tackles the recent dissolution of her long-term relationship. Throughout the record, plaintive string arrangements extend and complicate her meticulously shaped melodies without upstaging them, while electronics provide grooves, teeming bass, and glitchy latticework.
It was no doubt simple to mount this material live when compared with her previous few albums, which featured a laundry list of collaborators, from brass bands to Tuvan throat singers. In the case of 2011’s Biophilia tour, a set of unwieldy electroacoustic instruments exclusively produced for the album’s sessions were required. At Carnegie, all that was needed were three basic elements. The album’s co-producer, avant-garde electronic composer Arca, manned a rig of synths, digital turntables, and laptop, while percussionist Manu Delago played an electroacoustic drum set and a Hang (a brightly melodic steel drum shaped like a UFO). Members of renowned contemporary classical ensemble Alarm Will Sound ably handled the string charts.
The group performed the new album (minus “Atom Dance”) nearly in sequence, along with six other tracks plucked from her discography. These ranged from the very early to the recent: the locked-groove shuffle “Come to Me” from 1993’s Debut to the militaristic techno of Volta‘s “Wanderlust.” While Vulnicura‘s tunes were performed verbatim, the older tracks called for fresh arrangements. Particularly drastic was the revamp of Medulla‘s “The Pleasure Is All Mine,” which felt more stately and less neurotic when grounded by a somber string arrangement instead of eerie, breathy vocals and fragmented beatboxing. These tracks were not chosen for hit value, but for their conduciveness to the rest of the program, both in effect and content. The inclusion of two tracks from Vespertine, her other most unabashedly romantic album, was logical, particularly her first encore pick, the brutal, cryptic, Harmony Korine–co-written “Harm of Will.” Its lyrics weave aimlessly between the male and female perspective in an amour fou relationship, with lines like “And he placed her/unclothed…on top of the family tree” providing a perfect counterpoint to Vulnicura‘s talking points.
Björk’s performance was full of appealing contradictions: It was at once soul-baring and withdrawn, coy and fierce, unhinged and refined. While delivering a powerful and perfectly controlled vocal performance (no vestiges of the vocal polyps that troubled her following the Biophilia tour), she marched and skipped along in front of the half-moon of string players like a drill sergeant or the picker in duck-duck-goose. She arched back and delicately pliéd while wearing a spiky, Hellraiser-esque headdress and restrictive white gown. Assertive lines demanded finger wags at the offending “him” (“Show me emotional respect”) or a fist raised in solidarity with those who have been in her shoes (“I refuse, it’s a sign of maturity/To be stuck in complexity/I demand all clarity”). In the concert’s second, more upbeat half, she danced in a style that was somewhere between the spirited flailing of her onetime collaborator Thom Yorke and the stylized, atavistic moves of her British progenitor Kate Bush. Sometimes, she would become distracted, turning her back to the audience as she took in the sound of the band or focused on a difficult vocal passage.
Another integral element of Saturday’s performance were video visual aids for the Vulnicura tracks, which featured lyric subtitles and geometric shapes and lines that ducked, weaved, and twinkled with changes in the music. In many cases, they were like conductor’s scores: right-scrolling parallel lines followed separate instruments, and blinking dots followed note for note the subtly morphing string melodies. Though occasionally they distracted from the show (especially during the few times when the timing got slightly off), the projections offered some possible insight into the way Björk might conceptualize composition and hear musical form.
Seeing Björk live is an experience potent enough to make converts out of skeptics, and a must for even fairweather fans. At a runtime of just around two hours (with intermission), the program was powerfully streamlined, without a hint of frustration. It was conceived perfectly, almost as a dramatic work, and left the audience wanting for nothing. The fact that she seemed to be performing the music she wanted to — and in the way that she wanted to — was more satisfying than any “greatest hits” show could have been.
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