The Guardian

Scenes from a marriage ★★★★☆

The Icelandic star revisits her 2015 break-up album Vulnicura in a raw, stripped-back set – and the crowd goes wild.

photo : Santiago Felipe

The appreciation of live music has a limited lexicon, given the range of emotions artists elicit. Audiences can clap, cheer, boo, perhaps make gunshot noises, heckle “Judas !” ; more nuanced responses are at a premium. How then to respond adequately to the songs that make up the first half of Björk’s first ever concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall ? The yay/boo binary is sorely lacking.

Backed by a 26-strong forest of bows, wood and catgut – Aurora Orchestra – the Icelandic polymath sings an austere selection of tracks from her harrowing 2015 album, Vulnicura. It was the record that detailed the collapse of Björk’s 13-year marriage to conceptual artist Matthew Barney with frank horror ; this one-off performance echoes the beatless, whole-album remix, Vulnicura Strings, released a few months afterwards.

Tonight’s iteration finds the app-releasing, multi-platform-surfing VR maven at her least hi-tech : just voice, 18th-century instrumentation and a little UV light in this bastion of old-school musical values. The night is in stark contrast to the Björk Digital exhibition currently screening VR videos at Somerset House ; those heavily invested in the 50-year-old’s internal weather patterns, rather than newbies, make up the target audience. At the end of two encores, the howling and stomping is so persistent that Björk returns to thank the crowd.

She is dressed for the occasion like a cross between a bride and a moth drawn inexorably to a rave, her face enhanced (perhaps also shielded) by some curling insectoid filigree courtesy of designer James Merry that glows when the light changes. Her movements are geisha-like – stylised little dances that find her flapping invisible wings in slo-mo. On the floor are colour-coded thermal mugs with straws sticking out of them ; a pair of teleprompters scrolls through six songs’ worth of abject misery.

photo : Santiago Felipe

The strings hover and groan ; Björk starts off probing, a little exasperated, calling for some “emotional respect, oh, respect” on Stonemilker (Icelandic, you assume, for someone who is trying to get blood out of a stone ; you can’t help but think of Aretha Franklin when the word “respect” repeats).

“Maybe he will come out of this loving me,” Björk warbles on Lionsong, “maybe he won’t.” The song’s central analogy is that of a volatile presence in the home – a lion or a Vietnam vet. The strings prowl, creating a kind of call and response with Björk’s unanchored vocals. It only gets more granular. History of Touches telescopes every touch (indeed, “every fuck”), exchanged between the two into “a wondrous time-lapse”. (Even in her undoing, Björk seems to retain a heroically geekish capacity for awe.)

The lights go red and we are plunged into Björk’s Black Lake. “You fear my limitless emotions,” she howls. “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions.” Repeatedly, between verses – well, verbal sallies, really – there is a long radio silence among the most pregnant passages of the night. The strings drop to a barely perceptible hum, as though Björk’s vocal cords are regrouping for another round.

The killer blows come : “Family was our sacred mutual mission,” she sings fiercely, “which you abandoned.” The strings arpeggiate wildly. “How will I sing us out of this sorrow,” she asks on Family, as a low-slung solo cello makes present the threat, “build a safe bridge for the child out of this danger ? Danger ! Danger !”

We clap and cheer wildly, but it feels remiss to express such rote delight at such anguish, however movingly delivered. The same problem arose for me at a recent gig by Anohni, where applauding felt similarly wrong (environmental catastrophe ! Yay ! Complicity with the military-industrial complex ! Clap harder !), and a couple of years ago at Sufjan Stevens’s live rendition of Carrie & Lowell (schizophrenia ! Woot woot !). Perhaps instead of applause, our phones should be able to beam holograms of emojis back at artists. In which case, “skull skull, crying face, thumbs up, praying hands glass of wine” might just about cover it. Perhaps Björk could look into it, with the help of her visual artist Jesse Kanda ; they’d do a nicer job than Samsung.

When Björk returns for the second half, she is no longer a moth butting the dying glow of a relationship. The mask is more abstract and she sports a frock suggesting a crepe napkin atop a jellyfish ; the whole ensemble is lit up from within.

Although this performance often retains the sombre strings, the mood shifts perceptibly. When the strings go all froufrou and Disneyish, and Björk begins I’ve Seen It All, a playful set piece dating from the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack a decade ago, your ears take a moment to recalibrate to the conventional tunefulness (Vulnicura’s melodies take some finding).

Songs such as Jóga and Pagan Poetry, however, mirror the emotions of the first half better with their intensity ; Pagan Poetry is, of course, about the same relationship Björk was singing about earlier, at a very different stage.

When Björk sings : “I love him, I love him”, she loses her place for a moment, wrong-footed when the adoring audience join in. “She loves him, she loves him,” we sing, and it finally feels like an appropriate thing to do.

Kitty Empire

publié dans The Guardian - 25.09.2016

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