Politics with pompoms If gonzoid children’s illustrator Dr Seuss had ever dreamed up a political animal, it might have looked rather like Björk. She arrives onstage on the first of three nights at London’s Hammersmith Apollo wearing a pink and gold iridescent ballgown made entirely of ruffles, topped off by a fluffy head-dress of multicoloured powder puffs. Her opening salvo, ’Earth Intruders’, is a juddering voodoo prance that doubles as a call to arms for a ’stampede of resistance’. In the background, bursts of flame almost chargrill Björk’s backdrop of flags decorated with frogs, birds and the endangered caiman crocodile.
She ends the show trying to foment revolution. The encore is ’Declare Independence’, a track from Björk’s last and sixth album, Volta. Raucous and sloganeering, it marks an abrupt shift away from her usual swooping soundcraft. Shouting like a riot grrl manqué, Björk is encircled by her troupe of air-punching, head-banging, all-female, all-Icelandic brass players (’The Wonderbrass !’ Björk quips) whose own multicoloured headpieces are topped off by little red flags. Green rave lasers cut through a shower of gold glitter as the crowd air-punch back, shouting : ’Higher, higher !’ in response to Björk’s : ’Raise your flags !’ It’s a stupidly exhilarating climax to a fabulous gig, fusing the energies of punk and rave culture with Björk’s own bloody-mindedness.
You can see how this sort of thing might have upset the Chinese authorities just over a month ago when Björk added a chorus of ’Tibet, Tibet !’ to ’Declare Independence’ at her Shanghai gig. A couple of weeks earlier, Björk also came out in support of Kosovo’s split from Serbia. Serbia’s music festival, Exit, promptly dropped her from its bill, proving that pom-pom-clad creatives can still touch raw nerves. There’s no explicit dedication tonight to any bit of Britain trying to shrug off the imperial yoke, but Welsh-speakers and Cornish separatists will have gone home even happier than the rest of us.
In between, Björk’s politics are implicit, rather than explicit. Billed as Björk’s return to the dance floor after an absence of nearly a decade, Volta is actually more of a world music piece in which artificial borders are trampled over by stamping feet. Tonight’s first unannounced guest is the feted Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, who arrives in a gust of robes and coaxes origami arpeggios out of his instrument on ’Hope’. (’Hope’, lest we forget, is about a pregnant female suicide bomber.)
One of a slew of old favourites she plays tonight, ’Army of Me’ has martial club overtones. With the stage bathed all in red, and Björk’s core players - LFO’s Mark Bell on digitals, avant-garde drummer Chris Corsano on percussion, musical director Damian Taylor on more gear - jacking their bodies to beats so hard they are almost nauseating, it feels like the rave at the end of the world.
The term ’life-affirming’ is so often a euphemism for sentimental old tripe, but Björk’s works demand it. ’Hunter’ is redder in tooth and claw than usual, with innard-resonating bass, but Björk’s grasp of drama is a joy. As the musicians and machines build to a crescendo, Björk ejaculates streams of silly string out of her hands like Spiderman. It gets caught in her hair puffs. Another old favourite, ’Hyperballad’, starts off with the crowd bawling the verse, then turns the beats and bass up even further. From austere beginnings, ’Wanderlust’ turns into a Rio carnival tune, punctuated by Björk hissing ’Relentlessly ! Restless !’ - a concise summation of this gig, and her art.
The quieter segments are no less mesmerising. Accompanied by suited and bespectacled harpsichordist Jonas Sen, who spends the gig looking like he ought to be playing keyboards on Phoenix Nights, she sings ’Vokuro’, an Icelandic song from her 2004 album Medulla. Antony Hegarty turns up for ’Dull Flame of Desire’, looking like a cross between the Cure’s Robert Smith and a bag lady, but crooning powerfully in his effeminate husk as the Wonderbrass trump along. On the record, the song really takes flight at the end, when Antony and Björk trade wordless ululations. Regrettably, he scampers off before that can happen.
But some of the most skin-prickling moments of the night find Björk at her most post-verbal, just opening her mouth and issuing sound. She trades notes with the organ on ’The Pleasure is all Mine’, and gives voice to some unnamed beast on ’Vertebrae by Vertebrae’. Björk may have become a radicalised creature of late, with her pronouncements on liberation. But it’s when language falls by the wayside that her power is even more apparent.