You can hardly blame Björk for turning her back on pop. In the mid 1990s it brought her oppressive media intrusion and a psychotic stalker, and she was too restlessly imaginative to occupy one niche for long anyway. With her fourth album Vespertine, a delicate creature she describes as “modern chamber music”, and an unorthodox tour that has brought her to a converted church in Whitehall, the transition from pop oddity to darling of the avant-garde crowd is complete. At times tonight, it seems as if a vital quality has been lost along the way.
Resplendent in a dress similar to the swan dress she wore for the Oscars, she is joined by a 14-strong Inuit choir from Greenland, harpist Zeena Parkins and electronica mavericks Matmos. During Aurora, the latter’s Martin Schmidt generates rhythms by treading in rock salt ; on Cocoon, he plays with static by rubbing partner Drew Daniel’s hair. It’s that kind of show—over half the set is devoted to Vespertine and unreleased material, none of which is overburdened with choruses and disco moves.
When you’re playing to fans dedicated enough to snap up one of just 490 tickets for a hush-hush show, you can push the envelope as far as you like, but the atmosphere is almost suffocatingly precious. Had Björk opted to perform a tribute to Limp Bizkit arranged for banjo and spoons the reverence would be no less palpable. Her unearthly tones are awe-inspiring in such an intimate venue, but stifled by several songs with a fairytale prettiness that enchants rather than thrills. Only when her emotions threaten to overspill, as on Pagan Poetry’s breathless “I love him” refrain, does she soar.
Such moments arise mainly from older material. The choir lend an ethereal grace to the magnificent, slow-blooming All is Full of Love, and Venus as a Boy’s music-box eroticism still enthralls. In the ravey synth stabs of Human Behaviour and the cacophonous percussion that rips through new song It’s in Our Hands, you glimpse the old impudent energy and sonic wit that Björk is in danger of tidying away. When she plays the Coliseum in September she will be bringing an orchestra and, most likely, exploiting her back catalogue further. It’s probably for the best.